The Dying Art of Conversation

In this piece in The Financial Times, John McDermott muses on the dying art of the conversation. He enrolled in a night class to get some pointers. First, he begins:

What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.

What did McDermott seek from conversation?

My idea of a good conversationalist was an erudite entertainer. I had ambitions of learning how to host a good table. I had imagined finding out how to emulate Christopher Hitchens, quoting Yeats and quaffing scotch. But none of my new friends said they wanted to be a raconteur in the Coleridge or the Hitchens mould. Instead, there was a genuine, quiet determination to learn how to be better friends and better lovers. And to have a bit of fun on a Tuesday night. We were Boswells, not Johnsons.

I share McDermott’s sentiment. But what brought people together for this class wasn’t the desire to become better conversationalists. It was to connect with another human being, to hear their stories, to feel less lonely. He concludes:

For I had misjudged the evening, too. I was wrong to think of conversation primarily as a performance art, mastered by the likes of Coleridge and Hitchens. Indeed, conversation needn’t be anything. It needn’t have a purpose. The very act of talking and listening and learning is what my classmates sought.

And what about the lessons from the class to become a better conversationalist? Whittled down to the basics:

1. Be curious about others; 2. Take off your mask; 3. Empathise with others; 4. Get behind the job title; 5. Use adventurous openings; 6. Have courage.

Easier said (or written) than done. I suggest reading the piece to hear what other students used for their “adventurous openings.”

What do you think? Can one learn to become a better conversationalist? Is there technical skill one can perfect over time? Or is it more of an art than science?

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