Sunday, May 10, 2015

conversation is not just talk

Blackstrap Lake

Obviously, there's a lot more to conversation than the words that are spoken. You put yourself in the company of friends and you can safely assume that there will be conversation, although the range of topics is unpredictable. Maybe the point is not the topic but the interaction, like a friendly game of tennis. One serves, the other returns, repeat, repeat.

Too much non-interaction feels awkward and we all have the experience of “groping for a topic” when the silence gets uncomfortably long. You can't play tennis without a ball. It would look stupid.

All around the country men are going to coffee in the mornings—some in the afternoons and evenings as well. They obviously don't need the coffee; they've got coffee at home. It's conversation that's the real need here, especially for retired folk who no longer have a regular workplace where a full quota of interaction used to happen routinely. A bit of tennis is what's wanted.

Although the topics may not be the important components of coffee or party conversation, the choices aren't insignificant either. If you've little knowledge of machinery and the dialogue seems always to wander toward engine displacement, transmission lubricants and horsepower, you very soon begin to feel like you're on the tennis court without a racquet.

Someone speculated that conversation falls into three categories. In descending order of quality are conversations about ideas, things and people. Engagement in ideas, then, is the highest order. Gossip the lowest. A somewhat elitist view of the world, others would say, but there's merit to the concept in that idea conversations are more likely to include everyone around the restaurant table or in the living room.

As an example, take ideas about how we design our houses. Everyone lives in a house, must maintain it and deal with its idiosyncrasies. Talking about the best doorknobs available, though, is a “things” conversation; debating whether or not we generally build our houses too large is an “ideas” conversation. Exchanging information on how poorly the Jones maintain their yard is a “people” topic. It's easy to see that idea-dialogue provides scope for imagination and invention; the other topics may seem mundane in comparison. The last one may even prove destructive.

Thing is, we generally end up in groups that are conversationally compatible, individuals that share common interests, that naturally veer toward topics in which all can participate. Groups in which attention is paid to ensuring that everyone has a racquet.

Should the art of conversation be a school subject? History tells us that Cleopatra was a persuasive conversationalist, fluent in six languages, a student of history and culture and oratory. Alexandrian education was not so much job-oriented as it was geared to personal development. In a time when Roman women were chattels for trading, she so adeptly won Roman emperor Caesar to her cause that she was able not only to bed him but to bring his battalions to her aid.

Alexandria was obviously not Rome.

Because in the end, it's a satisfactory, rewarding, uplifting interaction that we came for. Isn't it?

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