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
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
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
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.
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
Note: If you'd be interested in knowing more about
these conversation clubs, or would consider hosting
one, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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