In The Art of Conversation: A Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, author Catherine Blyth offers tips, strategies and rules for enjoying great conversation, a pleasure that she feels is becoming dangerously neglected in our modern society, where hiding behind a screen and sending an e-mail is replacing face-to-face conversation. She says, "To imagine that a note on Facebook is as good as a conversation is to imagine that the X at the bottom of a greetings card is as satisfying as a hug." In this interview, she discusses 'bores, chores and other conversational beasts' and explores the five maxims of great conversation.
Commitment: Is great conversation becoming a neglected pleasure and lost art? If so, why? Why are we not enjoying more great conversations nowadays?
Catherine Blyth: I believe that all conversation is becoming a neglected pleasure, and that we are in danger of losing its finer points.
The irony of this supposed communication age is that the tools that are supposed to bring us together--computers, cell phones, blackberries--are helping to keep us apart. So many people communicate via machines that many are losing confidence, hiding behind these screens, or come to imagine--wrongly--that sending an e-mail guarantees their message is understood.
Conversation used to be the core of human interaction, but increasingly it is being pushed to the margins. When we lose the tone of someone's voice, the expression on their face, we easily misconstrue each other--and we lose the spontaneous, mind-bending pleasures that can turn exchanges of information into meaningful encounters.
To imagine that a good relationship can be forged purely via the pixellated words and images of chatrooms and fantasy worlds, such as second life, is delusional.
To imagine that a note on Facebook is as good as a conversation is to imagine that the X at the bottom of a greetings card is as satisfying as a hug.
Humans are social animals, and we need the pleasure of transient social encounters as much as deep conversation to feel part of our world.
Consider that the average person spends two hours a day on e-mail, and how many of those transactions that once stitched our days together have been replaced by computers (the chat in the queue at the bank, for instance), and how it is now thought acceptable to keep looking at your cell phone, or talking, when you are with somebody else, and you may realize that in the space of a decade, many social nuances have been lost.
Teenagers are being sent to etiquette courses and say they feel uncomfortable looking into somebody else's eye, or do not know how to shake hands. Many children, say teachers, arrive at school clearly never having had a one-on-one talk with an adult before--or been in a room where voices are not drowned out by television. Rocketing numbers of kindergarten pupils are showing problems forming words, or paying attention.
That said, I do not believe conversation is a lost art. From the moment a parent goo-goos to their child, they are teaching them the raft of social skills--taking turns, listening--that are the foundation of conversation. We can all clear space and time and raise our awareness of all those things we do in conversation without thinking. With a little thought, we can all do better.
My book is not simply about teaching people to talk, but implanting, and cherishing, all the tools (including laughing, lying and flirting) that humans have developed to read each others' minds, and get along. Conversation is the most sophisticated communication technology of them all, and it wires our minds, as well as warms our hearts.
Commitment: What is a great conversation? How would you explain the pleasures of a deliciously engaging conversation?
Catherine: A great conversation is one that turns an exchange into an encounter and then an adventure with another mind. Even saying 'hi' to your postman will make you and him feel good, because conversastion uses the brain and heart in ways that satisfying all the conditions for well-being. The foresight foundation commissioned a study that asked 400 scientists what people need to do to feel good. They said five things mae the difference (and money was not one of them). We should exercise opportunities to:
2. Be Active
4. Be curious and notice our environment.
5. Be connected to our world and the people in it.
Conversation offers all these opportunities. And when you experience that delicious joy, when you click with another person, you slow the passage of time and enrich life as few other things can. Second only to sex, and far less hassle, any conversation that leaves you smiling and feeling understood, whether bantering with a friend for whom this is merely a thread in a lifelong conversation or sharing your heart to somebody who knows how to listen, fits my definition of 'great.'
Commitment: What can make a conversation stink?
Catherine: If you are not asked a single question, or given no opportunity to do so; if you're interlocutor never meets your eye, or discloses more than a monosyllabic answer. If you unwittingly offend, or realize you have outstayed your welcome, or used the wrong name, or told a bum joke then had a sense of humor failure and let silence gore a hole in conversation.
If conversation is full of contempt, condescension, complaint or criticism. If you forget that listening is not a state of passivity, but an activity that should be seen, and heard--in your face, in your responses--and more important to maintain the flow of conversation than talking. If you fail to realize that what you say is less important than keeping up momentum, passing that ball along and including everyone.
If either of you forget that directness is a privilege of intimacy, and being rude is not honest, or tactful. If it feels fake, as if ou are making conversation instead of getting to know another person, or forget that both gossip and small talk, however light, empty and frivolous, are a valuable social service.
Commitment: How can a person balance their online social networking conversations via Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, with the need for real time conversation? Any tips on how we can bring more conversation into our lives?
Catherine: It is a question of priorities. Remember that you can cover more ground, faster, and with less confusion, on the phone or face to face than by e-mail. I see these social networks as ways to keep in touch, especially with absent frirends, and to arrange to meet people. If they become reproaches--if you find yourself manically collecting friends like scalps, spying on friends' social lives, and then wondering why you weren't invited to the party--they are unhealthy. (Facebook paranois is a growing problem, say psychologists).
Before tapping the next e-mail, ask yourself, how much more would I get out of talking? Businessmen know that the most valuable relationships, the ones that create trust and obligation, are lived out in real time. It is easier to sack the supplier that you have never met.
Start to question whether these communication tools--designed to serve you--have turned you into a slave. No computer can give us more than 24 hours in a day. The more selective and focused we are about how we spend our time, the more we get out of it.
Clear space for conversation--turn off the TV, the radio, restrict e-mails to a set hour each day. Maybe try as an experiment using them only to forward data for a week, and talking for anything else. Use opportunities to spend time together to allow conversation to form naturally: wash up together, walk around the supermarket together and make a pledge to greet properly everyone you meet: the doorman, checkout girl, waiter, bus driver.
Offer the priceless gift of your attention and you too will get more attention, and the world will seem a brighter place.
Each person is a portal to another world, so use small talk to open the door--and who knows where this conversation might end?
Commitment: Why did people once care about being good conversationalists, but nowadays, you hear little about anyone caring about conversation?
Catherine: We are busier, more distracted, and have a grudging attitude towards time: we think we are time poor. But to enrich time, we need to be choosy about how we spend it.
If we do not grow up sitting around a dinner table with our family, having our speech and manners corrected, we lose practice in telling stories, in learning how to claim our space in the conversation.
Fragmented lives make it harder for parents to fulfill this task, and with electronic babysitters--X-boxes and so on--to entertain our children, increasingly, engaging with them may seem like an entertainment chore.
With experience, our confidence in our skills decline too. Another reason why conversation is not cherished as it once was is that conversation skill was considered a mark of gentility.
It was learnt as part of the process that made gentlemen and women marriageable. But the idea that there is an art to conversation turns some people off. They think it sounds snobbish, old-fashioned, about etiquette, or bing a brilliant wit like Oscar Wilde. But it is not. It is about developing the ability to bond with others, express yourself, not performing but engaging.
The beauty is it is an art we make up as we go along, and all can master in their own way, since nobody can better express your thoughts than you. It is not about reciting set phrases from phrase books, and its creativity is not draining but energizing. Approach conversation as a performance and your interlocutors are less than likely to applaud.
Commitment: What are some of the biggest mistakes that can lead to a very unsatisfying conversation?
Catherine: Boasting; your task is to find common ground, not puff out your feathers.
Unflattering personal remarks; bitching (can bond us, but risky); moaning (unless with a friend), offering unwarranted sympathy (often a coded insult); forgetting to ask the other person a question; looking glum or distracted; forgetting to offer supportive remarks, or to use interruption to redirect conversation onto a subject that interests you.
Commitment: In your book, you discuss 'bores, chores and other conversational beasts.' Tell us about the typology of three conversational bores.
Catherine: There are more than three. If you wanted me to outline three, I'd pick limpet (the silent person who clings on but says nothing); demolition ball (those aggressive types who don't feel they've had a conversation unless they've bombarded you with dissenting views, and pause not to listen but think what to say before launching the next attack; and the apologist. Many dear friends are given to saying sorry for everything--in a way that looks like fishing for compliments--and it sucks the life out of you to listen. They think they're being thoughtful, but it is pretty egotistical, all about them and their desire to be prefect. It is almost as bad as that moment when somebody you're talking to says, 'I'm boring you' when you say goodbye; even if yoiu were interested, you are turned off.
Commitment: What are your personal top ten rules for great conversation?
Catherine: I have three principles: generosity, openness and clarity and five maxims:
1. Think before you speak
2. Listen more than speak
3. Find the incentive for talking
4. Never assume you know what they mean or that they understand you
5. Take turns.
Commitment: During a conversation, what is the best way to give a compliment--one that doesn't make you look like a "kiss up" and has an actual impact on the listener?
Catherine: Make it personal and specific; focus on a detail of what they're wearing, and it sounds more credible and thoughtful than 'great outfit.'
If you ask their advice, this is the subtlest of compliments. But bear in mind that compliments are subjective, and the less well you know them, the less personal or grandiose a compliment should be or you may sound insincere.
Commitment: What are your best three tips for being a good listener during a conversation?
Catherine: Watch their face; use your replies to direct conversation onto the focus of your interest; look enthusiastic and they will not feel less than fascinating -- and grow livelier as a result.
Commitment: What if a person simply has nothing to talk about? What then?
Catherine: Anyone with breath in their body has something to talk about. Find out.
To purchase "The Art of Conversation" click here.
About the Author: Catherine Blyth is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in numerous British publications, including The Times and The Daily Telegraph.