A few tricks in the trade of face-to-face talk.
Conversation is risky business, if you think about it. It can feel like reaching across a void; throwing strands of speech into the darkness, where they may be misinterpreted, or never interpreted at all. Conversation involves trying to make connection with an Other—whose motives, interests, and feelings toward you remain at least partially unkown. But if you succeed even a little, there is nothing like the experience of two minds meeting and coming away changed.
People have been lamenting the decline of conversation for at least a century; but the evidence does suggest that the skills of social interchange have seen more neglect in recent years. People don’t get together as often. And when they do gather, they don’t know what to say.
At my orchestra rehearsals, during our 20-minute break, I usually face a choice. I can break into a group of chatting veteran members; or wander in search of someone who looks bored and friendly; or sit down and pretend to be engrossed in something. Often, a third of the orchestra members remain at their seats, taking refuge in their phones. This choice is safe, because people think you’re busy, not lonely. If conversation is so hard for people who share such a large interest in common, what are we supposed to expect from youngsters, who have grown up with digital devices, and who still suffer from the terrible insecurities of youth?
Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, blames our phones and social media as the overwhelming cause of our isolation. But there are plenty of other non-technological culprits that prevent us from engaging with one another. It might be shyness; it might be busyness; it might be excessive mobility; it might be children (like the ones trying to stomp on my keyboard as I write).
Why converse? Turkle gives an urgent, practical reason: conversation builds empathy, our ability to understand one another’s feelings and break out of our self-concern. Decline in conversation atrophies our ability to empathize, and prevents us from building community. Whether you’re good at it or not, conversation is essential to our humanity. But Catherine Blyth, author of The Art of Conversation, adds another reason: conversation is a pleasure with no equal. Even a session of good small talk can build intimacy and generate delight.
Both Turkle and Blyth insist that conversation can be revived. Blyth’s is a fun and witty guidebook to the tools of talk that I recommend to anyone, novice or connoisseur in the art. If you struggle with awkwardness at cocktail parties; if your palms sweat as you hang around after church deciding whether to snag someone or bolt for the door; if you ever feel alone in a crowd; you may find in Blyth’s handbook some hope for adding finesse to your interactions. To Blyth, conversation is a game we can all learn to play. And if you like a challenge, this game has enough twists and nuances to keep you honing your skills for a lifetime.
Here are five key ingredients to help you on the way:
Conversation suffers because of the ways that our attention is fragmented, particularly by our social media, which interrupt us and entice us away into the ether. According to Turkle, recovering conversation begins with recovering attention. But attention begins with interest. And interest is a posture you can voluntarily put on; it involves suspending judgment, and approaching the speaker with a willingness to hear for as long as they might speak, and to try on their ideas and feelings for size. Blyth’s formula: Interest x Attention = Conversation = Joy.
We all know how hard it is to converse with people when we’re chatting on the fly or trying to round up toddlers. Social ease, mental clarity, and most worthwhile topics require time in an environment where people can turn to one another and forget other engagements. My close friend and I operate this way, when our schedules allow it. Since college days, it’s been normal for us to spend a four-hour stretch talking over wine or chocolate, while the darkness deepens and the children sleep. But for most other relationships, I have to work to create this kind of time-space. Food, drink, and ambience can help encourage people to stay a while, and to loosen their tongues.
If you can learn to be comfortable with silence, both in company and in solitude, you’ll be master of a versatile conversation tool. Silence can provide nuance, meaning, and emphasis to your words—like a well-timed pause before a joke’s punchline. It can express empathy, distance, confidence, or hesitation; it can imply wisdom, suggest intelligence, or create ambiguity. If nothing else, silence can be an eloquent way of drawing out reflection and speech from others.
Humor is wonderful, but you don’t have to be a standup comic to bring laughter to the table. If you’re not a natural wit, you may be encouraged to find that, according to studies, most laughter is not actually a response to humor. Rather, laughter is a communication tool; it keeps the wheels of conversation oiled. It serves as a melter of barriers, a status moderator, and a creator of friendliness and intimacy. Blyth says, “Laughter not only gives conversation rhythm, but also regulates intimacy, releasing tension, communicating emotion . . . laughter synchronizes conversation’s dance.” Be friendly always; be amusing when you can; be edgy when it suits; and most importantly, be willing to be amused. Follow these rules, and your conversations will have plenty of laughter.
If you want to survive social events and even succeed at starting good conversations, you need courage to accept and get over whatever discomfort might come: including awkwardness, misunderstanding, long silences, and boredom. According to Turkle, these trials are actually a crucial part of good talk. Risky conversation is not only thrilling, but it is “a crucible for discovery.” We form ideas through the struggle of speaking with one another. The French salons and British coffeehouses, created for the purpose of cultivating conversation, were seedbeds for the ideas and historical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries.
If boredom is your worst fear, reconsider; a lull doesn’t necessarily mean you need to run for it. Turkle insists that boredom is part of the rhythm of human exchange, like the slow parts of a dance. And in conversation, as in other areas of life, boredom is an important catalyst to creativity.
Along with these five tricks, you also need some optimism that, despite our vast separation from one another—our differences in ideas, values, and preferences—communicating and sharing feelings (empathy) is possible. And you have to be willing to experience failures. After all, you’re unlikely to experience transcendent exchanges of the kind that shift your whole vision, if you attempt them only from the safety of Google Chat or Facebook Messenger.
Liz Horst studied music and English literature at Grove City College and now lives in Maryland with her husband and two children. While working from home, Liz has found a precarious balance for her many loves. Besides writing and editing for the Play channel at Humane Pursuits, she runs a Suzuki violin studio and serves as executive director for the Eliot Society, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.