The Art of Conversation

I was watching the CBS show “Sunday Morning” on the weekend and it had a segment on the dying art of conversation. The point was that with all our technology and almost real-time connections available with email, handhelds and social networking sites, people seem to have lost the ability to have conversations. It was a thought-provoking and, I think, mostly true observation about what is happening to us. The show also showcased a new book by Stephen Miller called Conversation: A History of a Declining Art.
The program drove home the fact that we may be communicating more than ever, but we’re conversing less and less. Various people were interviewed and all agreed that we’re losing (perhaps have already lost) what may be one of the most basic and pleasurable aspects of life. Conversation has been integral throughout history—from talking around a campfire to ancient Greece to the salons of Europe to the coffee shops in Buenos Aires. Conversation has been a hallmark of any thoughtful, reflective and civilized society. While the CBS program posited that some of the appreciation for conversation was lost in the Puritan ethic of the ‘new world’, I think that the atrophy of conversation as central to all self-expression can be traced to the rise and current dominance of the Cartesian worldview beginning in the seventeenth century.

The Cartesian tradition, which has found its current expression in the “Critical Thinking Movement”, basically objectifies the individual and seeks objective knowledge in an objective world. Communication in this context is reduced to something like ‘sending and receiving’ information. This ‘computer-like’ model of communication calls forth an image of the mind as the software in the hardware of the brain. It is mechanistic through and through. In such an interpretation, the point of communicating is that the ‘receiver’ understands the content of what the ‘sender’ is saying. Listening is a process and is rarely distinguished from hearing. In the Cartesian paradigm, conversation is a means to an end—and increasingly not a very efficient one at that.

Stephen Miller describes conversation more as a process for its own sake, a skill based in playful repartee in which the value is in the pleasure of conversing and relating well with other human beings. I see conversation as more of a context or space in which human beings can authentically connect with one another as equals. I also see conversation as the essential basis for all coordination, creativity and enterprise. Without conversation, we would be isolated, separate entities reacting to whatever ‘input’ comes our way and reduced to mere coping as the only strategy for survival.

Without conversation, there could be no community, no love, no authentic creativity. I see conversation as more than what people can do after dinner or sitting around the living room. History is itself a discourse, a conversation about who we are, what is real and what has value, what is possible and not possible, what works and doesn’t work. Culture is the collective conversation about ‘the way it is’, and when enough people are in the same conversation, then that is our reality.

Those familiar with this blog will note that I view aging as a conversation and suggest that it defines the range of our experience, our relationship to the future and our relationships with those of other generations. This blog is a commitment to transform that conversation from one of decline to one of possibility. As for our day-to-day capacity for speaking and listening—having ordinary, everyday conversations—I agree with Sunday Morning.

We must nurture and practice conversing with each other about meaningful subjects in meaningful ways.

If we can do it with some humor and provoke new thinking in each other, then so much the better. To be sure, it will help not to take ourselves and our ideas too seriously, to share and express ourselves through conversation rather than attempting to dominate others through the power of persuasion.

Finally, if as a society we are losing our capacity for conversation, then I add this to the list of what we, as elders, must be responsible for. After all, where are the young to learn the joy and skill of meaningful dialogue, clever repartee or committed discourse if not from those who can remember what we did before television and email and cell phones and text messaging? We had conversations.