Conversations aren’t Contests

Arts and Letters Daily posted an article today from the Financial Times about how we need to brush up our conversation skills. According to John McDermott, “It’s a dying art, struck down by text, email and messaging.”

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.

Still good advice, something we all probably need to hear, but does anyone really care? Because the other half of the equation is that we also need to be good listeners. Dependence on electronic media has affected that as well. Movie goers talk through the film; others do not know how to sit and listen quietly at plays or classical concerts. Restaurants, stores, and other public places have such loud “music” playing that transactions are difficult and conversation is out of the question. Oral and aural skills are both undermined.

We have lost our role models, the temptations and distractions are too great, and excellence at conversation is a dying art. Too often now what passes for conversation is the exchange of trivial information or unsupported opinion. Sometimes there are parallel conversations, people taking turns politely enough, but not engaging with what the other person is saying. What a pity, because we now have the opportunity to know so much more than ever before, and there certainly is a great deal to discuss!

There are even concerns about the professionalism of professional public speakers! The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences attract very well-known professionals to participate in twenty-minute presentations. Invited to disseminate “ideas worth spreading,” these speakers are all required to follow the TED commandments.

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