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Conversation: Is It a Declining Art?

As a recent book on the subject points out, forces sapping conversation in our day seem stronger than the forces nourishing it. Learn about an innovative plan to reverse the trend, add to our social enjoyment and enhance the quality of our lives.

by Loren Ekroth

So, is conversation a dying art?

Probably so. At least in America.

As Stephen Miller writes in his recent book, "forces sapping conversation seem stronger than the forces nourishing it." (Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, 2006, p. 196)

Although Miller's book is a bit of a slog, it contains some useful and important ideas about why the art of conversation is on the decline in our society. Among them:

He writes that "Americans are not particularly interested in the art of conversation." Instead, they are interested in talk that influences, mainly for business purposes, as evidenced by the continued popularity of Dale Carnegie books and courses.

Such talk is pragmatic more than it is artful. It is not intended to entertain and to explore ideas. Instead, it is a tool to get results rather than a process to stimulate thoughts and feelings and to enjoy.

Popular culture is hostile to conversation...

Miller goes on to say that popular culture is hostile to conversation because it values either excessive politeness (which makes for talk that is neither spontaneous or authentic) or, at the other pole, expressions of anger, which are thought by many to be "real" and "manly." To "tell it like it is" is often applauded in our society.

Police states and organizations of zealots are also hostile to conversation - people coming together to talk for mutual learning, exploration of philosophical and political ideas, and for social bonding and enjoyment. After all, people might talk about ideas that oppose the government or the religious institutions.

For example, traveling in Spain during the 1960s when the dictator Franco was still in charge, I learned that when three people gathered together to talk, they were subject to police intervention because they could be considered a political meeting - and that required governmental approval. I believe that similar rules apply today in North Korea, Belarus, and Syria, among others.

Enemies of conversation

Today the electronic media provide both a distraction and a poor model for artful conversation. How does one talk with the TV or radio blaring? They squeeze out the time for uninterrupted talk.

As well, they rarely model examples of good listening and thoughtful talk and show us lots of yelling, verbal bullying, and mindless sound-bites with uncivil "discussion." They are part of our electronic hurry-up world. (Real conversation takes time.)

We can find plenty of "dumbing down" of talk in certain popular figures from whom young people get the idea that profanity and tough-guy talk with meager vocabularies is to be honored and copied. Gangsta rap, the talk-styles of many professional athletes, and the disdain for "educated talk" in some communities are examples of this dumbing down.

We have fewer "Third Places" where people gather for friendly talk. These are congenial public places - not the homes, not the workplaces - where one could meet friends and talk, such as pubs and coffee houses. Although Starbucks built its empire on two premises - offer high quality coffee and pleasant places to meet - I still find their stores in a rush and too often cellphone-noisy.

Friends of conversation

People who seek better human relationships may opt for voluntary simplicity by slimming down on the "stuff" they buy and spending more time with friends, even tossing out their TV sets and cutting back on or eliminating video games and computers. Instead, they play board games, read aloud to one another, and share stories.

Conversation cafes have slowly spread around North America and now number roughly 100 in the U.S. and Canada. These are low-cost and very enjoyable activities that usually occur weekly in restaurants or cafes. The idea is good, yet the growth is small.

During the fall of 2006 I will launch a program for conversation skill-building and social enjoyment.

For a very modest cost, these clubs can meet to hone their skills and enjoy civil talk. What the Toastmasters clubs offer for public speaking skills, these clubs will provide for conversation skills.

You can learn a lot about history by reading books, but you can't learn conversation skills without practice. Conversation is a behavioral skill, not a cognitive knowledge.

Note: If you'd be interested in knowing more about these conversation clubs, or would consider hosting one, please email: loren@conversation-matters.com.

Just as we have come to understand the value of nutritious food, clean water, and regular exercise for better lives, so is the art of conversation a way to add quality to our lives.

Loren Ekroth 2006, All rights reserved

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact Loren at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check out a wealth of valuable resources and articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com.

Some Related Articles:
How to Make a Strong First Impression
Six Benefits of Better Conversation
Emotional Intelligence and the Art of Conversation
Conversation: Going Deeper Faster
Conversation and Compulsive Talkers
The Future of Conversation
Debunking the 55%, 38%, 7% Rule
Do You Have Problems with C.A.D.D.?
62 Ways to MAXIMIZE Your Approachability
When in Rome, Should We Do As the Romans Do?
Four Ideas for Adding Humor to Your Conversations
The Art of Starting a Conversation
Prescriptions for Effective Listening
Success Strategies for Combating Conversational Crappiness
How to Avoid Falling Asleep Behind the Conversational Wheel
Bringing Out the Best in Others During Conversation

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