The (Lost) Art Of Conversation
November 13, 2012
In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s wittiest play, the newly eloquent Eliza Doolittle makes formal small-talk at the races and gets it hilariously wrong. In Shaw’s day the art of conversation was formalized, people were trained to conduct small talk.They knew how to navigate the social landscape because they were given a road map. Today the very idea of cultivating a small-talk repartee is as quaint as Eliza’s parasol. Gone are the days of raconteurs, bon vivants, and wits. And we moderns are lost in the woods of social interactions.
Oh I don’t mean the casual conversation we have with the people we live with or the intimate chit-chat with close friends. I am talking about the skill of initiating and sustaining interesting conversation with new acquaintances at dinner parties, pleasant banter with clients, congeal small talk with colleagues and neighbors. These are skills we longer give attention to, with the result that most of us do not know how to conduct a conversation in formal situations. And when we do attempt it the results are not so entertaining as Miss Doolittle’s. People kvetch, they ramble, they bitch, or they stay silent, letting the other party carry the burden.
The other day I had the misfortune to sit across the table from a “know-it-all”. He was an expert on any and every topic of conversation at the table, or so he believed. He didn’t converse, he lectured. The rest of us were merely an audience to show off in front of. Guys like him (and it is usually men) break the first rule of conversation: being respectful to the one with whom you are speaking. Conversation is a tennis game, a back-and-forth between two or more persons of equal standing. One of the impressive qualities of Queen Elizabeth is that she is known to put all ranks of persons at ease with her conversation. Something to be learnt from that: treat the person you are speaking with as your equal, be he a beggar or a billionaire.
Occasionally, very occasionally, I come across people who know how to mould the most mundane events into amusing and entertaining anecdotes. Good writers learn this skill also, but good conversationalists are able to do it spontaneously, without deliberation. In contrast, some people mishandle even a startling event into a dull and tedious tale by providing too much irrelevant detail, by being unaware of proper rhythms of speech, by poor word choice, and by jumbling the order of the narrative.
I have noticed that the most boring conversationalists are the ones who do not listen. They ramble on without regard to the response of the listener. They lack the ability to read the faces and body language of the other, hence they do not adjust what they are saying. They regurgitate the events of the recent past as though speaking out loud what they are thinking. A piece of advice I recall from my youth, though I do not remember who gave it to me, said: To be interesting, be interested. Look them in the eyes, smile and be genuinely sympathetic to their story. Learning to listen well is most of being a good conversationalist.
So is having a great memory. The parts of the brain that process these two things must be the same. A witty man is able to recall which stories and anecdotes he has already told to whom. He does not bore people by repeating the same few stories. He remembers something about the lives and interests of the persons with whom he converses. Hence he introduces topics he knows they find relevant. His memory also allows him to recall jokes and clever quotes. He remembers people’s names, and items from the news with which to progress a conversation with that particular person.
Good conversation skills is important because it is the doorway to good friendships. And good friend are as vital to health and happiness as exercise, nutrition and meditation. I do not have a wide and varied circle of friends because, I believe, I never master the art of conversation.
What can be done about it? I believe it is never too late to cultivate this art. It requires attention and practice. To that end I now listen as a student to the conversations around me, both the inept and the expert, trying to glean the invisible ingredients that go into this art. But good conversation is not a recipe you can just imitate. It requires practice but also research. I read online and in print topics which previously I had not bothered about. Like many people of my age, I know more and more about less and less. I can conduct a competent conversation about pre-Christian era Sanskrit texts, but who is there who finds that fascinating? I realize I need to widen my net of interests, in order to be interesting.