Good conversation

These days we communicate as much as possible through email and text. We justify this on the basis of efficiency. The idea seems to be that, since we can edit our messages, we can be more “ourselves” and make sure we say things “just right.” We now interact in the same manner face-to-face: we say something, and then sit back and wait for the response. We utter statements and talk around each other, rather than with each other.  Actually, we  mostly talk about ourselves.

This makes conversation more superficial, shriveling our empathy and feeling of connection — we increasingly fail to hear each other’s voices, read each other’s body language, or see each other’s facial expressions. We not only lose out on insights into the lives of others, but into our own as well.
Good conversation should be allowed time and space for thought, for lulls, for repetition and elucidation. It should be allowed to stop and start, without interruptions and with cellphones firmly turned off.  In a conversation we should be all attention,  actively listening to one’s companions.

Many  people today shy away from talking with those they disagree with. They don’t like conflict, or having their beliefs challenged,  prefering to interact with people who confirm their preconceived notions.  But some of the best conversations are civil debates on important ideas and issues. By engaging with those with whom we disagree, we end up growing and examining our own ideas more closely, even if we don’t ultimately change our minds.  This is particularly a problem in the United States, where the two political tribes seldom converse with one another (I am ashamed to say I am guilty of this as well.  Ed.)

Some of the most memorable moments of our lives revolve around our conversations: the conversation you had with your girlfriend when you both realized you were falling in love; the conversation you had with a mentor who helped crystallize what  areer to pursue; the conversation you had with your daughter when you realized she had truly become an adult.

Epicurus knew that face-to-face conversations could  be entertaining, edifying, and satisfying, opportunities for both learning and mentorship, helping people to discover things about others, and about themselves.  Conversations could spark transformative realizations, even revelations. He spent hours in his famous garden holding conversations with all manner of people, educating himself about human nature and honing his ideas.  He was arguably the greatest conversationalist of ancient times.  We should try to emulate him.  (inspired by “Reclaiming Conversation”, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, some of whose language I have used for this posting)

One Comment

  1. My generation (Millennials) are often criticised for their excessive reliance on technology as a means of communication. The reality is that although we’ve utilised technology effectively, face to face communication remains preferable. I’ve never know anyone to refuse the opportunity to meet in person on the basis that they would rather be talking online.
    I think you make an excellent point about how people shouldn’t look at their phones during a conversation. It strikes me as incredibly rude. But for conversations to be truly meaningful, they have to be done in small groups. I often find it very hard to join in a conversation between a very large group, particularly if I don’t know the group all that well.

    I completely agree with you on the importance of talking to people you disagree with. The problem with my generation, both in the UK and the US, is that they are much more left wing than the general population, particularly on the social issues. So political bubbles often emerge due to the generational divide. There’s also the problem of conservative and authoritarian views being seen as inherently discriminatory against minority groups. So conservatives can be reluctant to voice their views for fear of being seen as prejudice. Now in some cases, I believe they are discriminatory, but they should be heard anyway. Any attempt to shame your opponents into silence will ultimately be futile.
    At the same time, conservatives have their own political correctness, particularly religious conservatives. If you’re very critical of Christianity, or hold extremely socially liberal views, many traditional conservatives simply won’t want to talk to you. This isn’t seen often amongst young people, but I’ve definitely noticed amongst the older generations.

    The art of the conversation certainly needs to be rediscovered. But both men and women struggle to converse properly. The problem with many men is that they don’t know how to have meaningful conversations. Particularly in Britain, men suffer from the stiff upper lip. They can’t talk about their feelings, or anything too personal. So instead, some resort to ‘banter’, or simply making jokes as an alternative to talking honestly. Now this is a lot of fun, but it can’t be done all the time.
    Women have a different problem. Many of them are far too worried about how they’re perceived by others. So they shy away from controversial topics for fear of inviting judgement. It’s why in my experience, women are more politically correct than men. Of course, all of these are generalisations and there will always be exceptions. But we are going to have to accept that people will say things we hate if we want to get to know others properly.

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