Discourse, the sweeter banquet of the mind.
– Homer, The Odyssey
One evening about a decade ago, back in undergrad, I was working on a paper due that day. This really meant I could slide it under the professor’s office door anytime before she arrived the following morning. When I was just about to finish it up, a couple of friends invited me out for drinks. I needed a short break, so I agreed, knowing I could finish the paper later that night. We got together, and did my favourite thing in the world – we talked. And talked and talked. I kept peeking at my watch, but the conversation was just too captivating to abandon. I eventually decided to hand the paper in late and accept a lower mark. I felt like I was learning a lot more from the conversation than from that class.
It was a formative moment, and I think about it often. I love reading, and have three degrees under my belt, but that night reminds me of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s observation, “A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.”
Some of my most treasured memories have been spent lost in conversation in basements in Winnipeg, kitchens in Moscow, balconies in Ottawa, and rooftops in Istanbul. There’s nothing better than a truly great conversation. The kind that carries on into the twilight hours (how curious that they always seem to happen at night). The kind where you don’t have to prove anything, you don’t have to worry about being judged or offending anyone. The kind that makes you feel you’re not alone in the world.
A good conversation is a living thing, and those whose words give it life determine its character. One wrong person and it perishes; too many and it suffocates (“In much company, few listen,” said Jonathan Swift). A healthy conversation needs to be fed with good food, drink, and perhaps music. Treat it well and it will reward you with a memory to cherish for life. A conversation should be allowed to flourish uninhibited, taking whatever form it chooses. There are many different species. Shooting the breeze. Setting the world to rights. Discussions, dialogues, and debates.
Conversations are the winds in the sails of friendship. The frequency, content, and quality of discussion between friends set the tone for their relationship. Friendships can be based on shared interests, values, or experiences, and conversations are the vehicle for that sharing.
Conversations are the pinnacle of human interaction. The uniquely intricate level at which we converse is perhaps the defining characteristic of humankind. The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott said “Conversation distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilised man from the barbarian.”
Conversation is the breeding and training ground for ideas, themselves the ingredients of civilization. The French essayist Michel de Montaigne called conversation “the most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind.” Author Neil Postman wrote about their importance as incubators for ideas. “[H]ow we are obliged to conduct […] conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.”
Conversations have been reflecting and shaping our thoughts and values since the emergence of complex language. From the agoras of Greece and the forums of Rome, to the medieval great chambers, Victorian drawing rooms, and parlours of Europe, from French salons, German stammtische, and Spanish tertulias to the cafes of London, Paris and Vienna, and from the twentieth century North American living rooms and Soviet kitchens to the Starbuck’s and social media of today, conversations have enjoyed a prominent role throughout history.
Yet many declare conversation to be a dying art in this, the age of distraction. We’re imprisoned by our technology, the offspring of what George Orwell called “solitary mechanical amusements.” First came radio, then television, and finally computers, video games, cell phones, portable music players, and the Internet. We are living under the Reign of the Screen.
This alienating technology has changed the way we think and interact. We wear ear buds to avoid talking to people. We refer to phone calls, even during working hours, as “intrusive.” When a stranger on the street strikes up a conversation, it often makes us uncomfortable and we label them “weird” or “creepy.” Living in a society where anxiety and loneliness are endemic, we “overshare” on social media out of desperation for human interaction.
Our smart phones (which psychologists inform us we are literally in love with) command our attention during board meetings, on dates, at church, and even at funerals. As psychologist Sherry Turkle writes, we’ve “sacrificed conversation for mere connection,” and embraced conversation-killing devices that allow us to be “alone together.”
We increasingly communicate with each other in carefully controlled online interactions. The more public our lives become, the more we project a meticulously edited version of who we want to be. But it’s only in the unedited moments where we let down our guard, bond, and reveal our true selves. Conversation is a wild animal (“exhilarating, serendipitous, controlled anarchy” in the words of English columnist Simon Jenkins). Digital conversations imprison that animal in a zoo, where it becomes a well-behaved but artificial pet. “Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology,” Turkle writes.
Writer Stephen Marche similarly warns of the sanitizing effect of social media. “Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact.”
Social media encourages the shallowest possible interactions, trying to pass off hundreds or thousands of meaningless connections as “friends.” It degrades the art of conversation to that of a lower form. “We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship,” writes Turkle. “[S]ocial media continually asks us what’s “on our mind,” but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It’s hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect.”
Technology also makes it easier to avoid spontaneous conversations with others and ourselves by withdrawing into our smart phones and favouring e-mail over calling or face to face interaction. As author Jonathan Safran Foer puts it, “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.”
My love for good conversation is only equalled by my loathing for superficial blather. I often find myself floating away during a wasted conversation. Encouraged by toxic technology and terrible television talk-shows, all too often we conform to the banal convention of not discussing anything of real substance, and conversation regresses into gossipy prattle. Don’t get me wrong – restaurants, vacations, work, Hollywood – each have their place in everyday conversation, but they needn’t dominate every discussion. Truly vibrant conversation consists of ideas, stories, raillery, and the sharing of passions.
I’ve always been in love with the abstract, the world of ideas and concepts, and the underlying meanings of things. Thus I lament the advent of what journalist and professor Neal Gabler calls the “Post-Idea World,” where pragmatic information has overtaken creative ideas. “We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value,” Gable writes. “Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.” Social media contributes to this phenomenon. “[S]ocial networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show.”
Modern communications technology isn’t all to blame. The superficiality of conventional conversation was criticized long before the Internet. Virginia Woolf described London drawing-room conversation in an essay written in 1931:
“There must be talk, and it must be general, and it must be about everything. It must not go too deep, and it must not be too clever, for if it went too far in either of these directions somebody was sure to feel out of it, and to sit balancing his tea cup, saying nothing […] [I]f anyone said a brilliant thing it was felt to be rather a breach of etiquette – an accident that one ignored, like a fit of sneezing, or some catastrophe with a muffin.”
American essayist Phillip Lopate delivered this devastating critique of dinner party conversation in an article from 1986:
“The conversation at dinner parties is of a mind-numbing calibre. No discussion of any clarifying rigor—be it political, spiritual, artistic or financial—can take place in a context where fervent conviction of any kind is frowned upon, and the desire to follow through a sequence of ideas must give way every time to the impressionistic, breezy flitting from topic to topic. Talk must be bubbly but not penetrating. Illumination would only slow the flow […] What do people talk about at such gatherings? The latest movies, the priciness of things, word-processors, restaurants, muggings and burglaries, private versus public schools, the fool in the White House (there have been so many fools in a row that this subject is getting tired), the underserved reputations of certain better-known professionals in one’s field, the fashions in investments, the investments in fashion. What is traded at the dinner-party table is, of course, class information. You will learn whether you are in the avant-garde or rear guard of your social class, or, preferably, right in step.”
A conversation can also be a journey that leads to the unearthing of countless new worlds. It can show us who we are, and what our place is. It can happen with a friend, a lover, or even a stranger. It’s there for the taking if we just respect it and embrace it for the delicate art that it is, and open ourselves to it.
You can find my other creative nonfiction pieces here.