In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet criticizes rich, well-connected Lady Anne De Bourgh because she is a person with “little conversation.” In Jane Austen’s day, conversation was an art form, in the same category as music or painting Those long evenings with little artificial light, and no electronics made the exchange of thoughts and ideas a key form of entertainment.
Today, though, there is much hand-wringing about how good conversation is a lost art. Stephen Miller’s 2006 book, Conversation: A History of a Declining Art captures this theme. He contends that internet chat, text messaging, tweeting, emailing, and blogging have become ways of avoiding conversation. Face-to-face conversation has become either insipid small talk about kids and vacations or one person bloviating about his or her life, making it hard for anyone else to get a word in edgewise. As I think about it, conversation among sixty somethings, these days, is usually an add-on to some activity: cards, games, movies, lunch, etc.; a thoughtful interchange of ideas doesn’t seem to be the focus.
It’s a sign of the times that Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan, actually teaches an undergraduate course called “How Conversations Work.” She contends that young people don’t even know how to conduct a conversation…..they are so accustomed to the terse text or tweet. Her course is a hands-on attempt to impart understanding of this art form to young people who will need it more than they realize. Her first premise is that “conversation is work.” She goes on from there.
■ Ask questions to demonstrate your interest in other people and their experiences, opinions and perspectives.
■ Provide conversation-friendly answers. Very short answers can give others little to work with in terms of follow up discussion. Very long answers can be off-putting.
■ Put topics on the conversational floor. Offer possible topics of shared interest.
■ Pick up other people’s conversational topics.
■ Listen actively and attentively: Our posture, facial expressions and gestures tell others that we are listening. Head nods and uh-huhs help others see that we are engaged in the conversation.
■ Don’t argue, raise your voice, or over-share.
■Don’t correct your conversation partner or go on righteousness crusades.
■ Don’t be a know-it-all. Seek to understand rather than be right.
Good conversation takes practice! Dependence on electronic devices has made it much harder. But the art of conversation is still a satisfying and necessary form of communication that should be cultivated. This sixty-something tends to agree with the essayist Montaigne when he wrote “I find the practice of [conversation] the most delightful activity in our lives.”