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Do People Ever Get Better at Conversation? deserves a compliment for choosing a classic essay by Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver's Travels fame) on improving conversation. Actually it is a timely topic for those in snowbird country. It certainly takes some effort to adjust to the prose of the early 1700s, but if you are willing to read his brief essay you are likely to enjoy it. Rather than rehash his essay, let me confine myself to updating it to our times or looking for issues that he overlooked.

Most of the schemes for 'solving the world's problems' are difficult, slow, or even doubtful. What is tantalizing about the sorry state of conversation is that improvement is not only feasible, but almost easy! Just about anybody could become a better talker and listener with just a few minutes of thought about some common bad habits, followed by a moderate amount of willpower and practice.

Snowbird meccas are great places to observe the maladies of conversation that seem to grow worse with age. People can quickly tell when an old boy is cranking up to tell one of his self-centered and interminable stories. The audience can see it coming even before he gets the first sentence out. Then they zone out mentally while nodding their heads, grinning occasionally, squirming irritably, and feigning interest. Who knows how long the story goes on; the audience doesn't regain consciousness until the old boy starts laughing loudly at his own punchline. 

Think of the golden opportunity that is being wasted when a person fails to become a better conversationalist with age! Look at the pathetic efforts that older people take to look young or compete with youngsters on the youngster's terms. Better that they should put the effort into something that they can actually win at. They can and they should!

It actually could be a good thing to have a larger stock of BRIEF anecdotes to draw on as one gets older. A well-chosen anecdote can make a nebulous abstraction vividly concrete. But the opportunity is wasted by the excessive length of the story, and by the old boy becoming befuddled when he forgets some inconsequential detail.

An RV friend and blogger complains about people "talking in paragraphs." Isn't that a great expression? Sometimes the paragraph-spouter has read so many books that their conversational style has changed from spoken-English to written-English, a rather different language.

It's an almost universal complaint that X is boring and self-centered when all he wants to talk about is X. But I've seen other people invert this syndrome to little advantage. They -- let's call him Y -- make it a habit to converse only by asking X questions about something that X cares about, which, naturally enough, is usually just Xness. Can't Y see how pandering this is? And if X realizes the manipulative gimmick that is occurring, Y comes off as being condescending. I've been on the receiving end of this sort of interrogation and have come away feeling insulted.

Besides, if listening to X run on about X is boring, what difference does it make who the instigator is?

The salons and coffeeshops of the 1700s were famous for civilized conversation. James Boswell offered this anecdote in his Life of Johnson (

He [Samuel Johnson] sometimes could not bear being teazed with questions. I was once present when a gentleman asked so many as, 'What did you do, Sir?' 'What did you say, Sir?' that he [Johnson] at last grew enraged, and said, 'I will not be put to the QUESTION. Don't you consider, Sir, that these are not the
manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with WHAT, and WHY; what
is this? what is that? why is a cow's tail long? why is a fox's tail bushy?'
In olden times the pedantic know-it-all was a nuisance that one would run into. He would put the listener in his place by pulling rank: "See here, good fellow, Euripides thought quite the opposite on that subject". Well, classical educations are almost extinct in our society, and gentlemen are completely so. 

As Jonathan Swift suggested, the argument against pedantry in conversation could be broadened to mean any kind of obtrusive, specialized knowledge that puts other people at a disadvantage.

What would Swift say of the smartphone addict today who sits down with others, supposedly to converse, and then goes running to his gadget like a junkie reaching for his needle?!

The single greatest cause of confusion in conversation is pronoun antecedents. What if I had used 'she' or 'her' for both X and Y  seven paragraphs above this one? This kind of muddle happens all the time. It could be averted by using nouns and names repetitively, instead of those troublesome pronouns. Yes, a noun or name is usually a syllable or two longer than a pronoun, but the verbal shorthand isn't worth the confusion. Besides, there are other ways to cut down on syllables. 

So far I might have put the cart before the horse, just as Jonathan Swift did. It's not that people don't understand how conversations could be improved, and it's not that it would take too much self-control. The real problem is that people are not motivated to do so, perhaps because they resent the notion of conversational rules. It sounds repressive. They want to, like, do their own thing, man.

Why don't they apply the same argument to oppose rules/customs when playing cards or ping-pong?

I believe they are making a purely intellectual error in resenting rules about conversation. They are confusing 'form' with 'content.' Without rules and customs how could we have language? We can agree that "c-a-t" refers to the 15 pound animal that purrs on your lap and says, "Meow", without being constrained to have the same anecdotes and opinions about cats. What is true for language could easily be extended to a broader notion of language, called 'conversation.'


Tesaje said…
There's good conversation and there's drivel. The vast majority of spoken interchange among people is drivel. That's why eavesdropping on phone calls is boring.
XXXXX said…
Deriving satisfaction from conversations can be challenging, that is true. Satisfaction is what all participants are looking for. For some, the need to be heard is overwhelming. They can't really listen yet because there is too much going on inside them. It's probably simply an act of charity to sit through anything of this nature.
Satisfaction comes from being heard and the art of conversation that you are referring to acknowledges that this is actually a two-way street. Do you think it is possible to separate the art of conversation from the art of building friendship? (Perhaps "friendship", like "conversation" is another word in need of definition.)
I think of how different my response would be to someone I am sitting next to on the train who I will never see again and to a person I respect and admire and would like to develop a quality friendship with. I'll listen to a monologue/rant on a train. I've learned over the years to not let it drain me. I look at it as a kindness to someone in need for truly it must be a needy person who thinks nothing of engaging in this type of behavior.

But to someone I respect and admire, I want more engaging contact. I want to hear them and to be heard truly. That process requires asking questions to clarify statements/beliefs, and allowing counter points and carefully considering them. From that exchange, I hope my ideas are tweeked and that I leave the conversation feeling that I broke through some wall of resistence/fear within me and have grown a bit. And that the same has occurred for the other person as well. (Otherwise, I will end up feeling like a student or a teacher and I dislike both feelings.)

But, not everyone wants to work this hard. I have often felt that talking to some people is just another bodily function. In this case, taking a good sh**. A bit analogous to "They want to, like, do their own thing, man." Priceless.

Drivel, indeed. There are times when I don't mind that, though. When I camp around others and they have a fire at night. I pay little attention to what is said, because it's drivel, as you say. But I like to poke at the fire and hear the murmur of human voices and laughter.
I too will sometimes listen to rant for the sake of the ranter. It's just a bodily need they have, as you say. Of course listening just means walking next to them and looking at things and thinking of other things. What does it matter if I'm listening? Conversation outdoors always has that advantage.
Anonymous said…
I had a similar thought process going on in my head this morning. Not so much about the quality of conversation, but how many of us (yes, I include myself in this) are losing our ability to converse clearly and in a way that is of mutual benefit to all parties involved. I'm too young to talk about “the old days,” but I do have some memory of a time when coffee houses were used as meeting places between people to converse and enjoy each others company, and the distractions were limited.
These days I find almost the opposite to be true. Coffee houses seem to be filled with people who are intent on socializing electronically with the rest of the world, while avoiding contact from their immediate environment.

I have to admit that I have often caught myself waiting for my turn to talk, instead of listening to the other persons conversation. I find this to be a poor personal trait in myself, and have made a conscious effort to change it. However, I do have to question the sincerity in this. If one is forcing themselves to listen to another person instead of being sincerely interested in what they have to say, then it is not an honest encounter. Then again there are those rare encounters where I am hanging on every word that the person is saying, and find myself wishing that they would keep talking even when they stop. Interestingly it's not always the topic of conversation that I find interesting, but the way the person delivers their ideas and their presentation of them. I'm not sure if that kind of speaking skill can be learned, but instead I think that it's a natural gift, or one that has been unconsciously developed over a persons life time.
Good comment, Gabevarga. The modern coffeehouse is quite a disappointment, isn't it?, with its smartphone-addicted pseudo-sophisticates. When we read about the coffeehouses of eras long-past, are we getting an accurate story? Why did they "work", but the modern coffeehouse is just a failure?
XXXXX said…
We have a tendency to romanticize the past, to leap into thinking that the lack of modern technology would make people better conversationalists. I wasn't there, :), but want to throw in the counterpoint that many (if not most) past societies were very rigid in their social rules which were meant to control the behaviors of "unequals" and this included what was appropriate talk. For example, it was considered unwomanly for a wife to question her husband about many things, including finances, since she legally owned nothing, not even her own wages. In preWWII Germany, it was completely disrespectful to question any authority. To simply question, even in the most respectful tone, was in itself disrespectful. Have you ever wondered why those born in the 50's and 60's were repeatedly warned not to "backtalk" their parents? Didn't matter how nicely you questioned them; just the act of questioning itself was not allowed.
Traditionally, coffee houses were meeting grounds for political discussions, etc. The internet can legitimately perform these functions as well. Certainly one can be a good listener on the net and certainly even a good blog can be a very suitable substitute for a coffee house.
It depends wholly on the individuals involved, not the place or avenue.
Just for the record, I meet every week at a coffee house for the most delightful of conversations, sharing of things to do, what's going on, making plans, etc. with a group of like-minded individuals, all of which naturally leads to interesting and mind-opening discussions of politics, etc.
If a person is not happy with the quality of their conversations, perhaps it's best to get off the blame wagon and simply look in the mirror.
XXXXX said…
I should have added to the comment about preWWII Germany. This firmly entrenched hierarchy including the disallowance of any questioning of authority was one of the social prerequisites to the holocaust. It helps explain why many good people took part in doing many bad things.....they followed orders of their superiors without questioning them.
I'm glad we aren't like that anymore but I tend to think we haven't found the right balance either.
Randy said…
Boonie: Thanks for the mention. I have ranted about long windedness--In rhyme:
The Window of Welcome

The window of welcome opens when others are willing to hear;
It closes when they’ve heard enough and wish you’d disappear.
Happily, most everyone’s window is open, ready to interact,
‘Cause all of us are hungry for some good yackity-yack.

Even strangers will pause to let you have a say.
Windows are open everywhere; folks are ready to play.
But there comes a time in every interaction
When one party or the other wants a quick extraction.

Subtle hints spring forth, like eyes that dart away,
Face and body signals, clear as sunlit day,
Glances at watches, backsteps, drooping heads or sighs,
Fidgeting and yawns, glazed-over eyes.

Sensitive folks will read these signs and with good grace
Wrap up the interaction and get out of your face.
They can see the window of welcome closing down.
Such people are usually loved in whatever state or town.

But there are those among us, the crude or rude or dozing,
Who can’t or won’t read signs that the window of welcome is closing.
Self-important windbags, lonely folks and geezers,
Wacko religious fanatics, narcissistic self-pleasers,

Guitar players and poets, preachers and politicians
Are particularly prone to this sad condition.
Glomming on like leaches, desperate to be heard,
Filling up the air with endless boring words.

Save yourself; go learn the art of conversation.
The price that windbags pay is excommunication.
They will lose their friends, wind up all alone,
Dying bitter and neglected in some old folks home.

Friends, I have much more to say: But wait! Did I
See the window closing? I think I did! Goodbye.
The Mobile Kodger
My goodness, shameless self-promotion -- but I'm glad you did. (grin)

Of course, by preaching against monologues we aren't endorsing MTV-style cut-cut-cut in conversation. How could someone say something meaningful in just a couple seconds?