A review appeared in the weekend Wall Street Journal of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, by Stephen Miller, who is a contributing editor at the Wilson Quarterly. According to the reviewer, Moira Hodgson, among Miller’s culprits is the recent profusion of gadgets – iPods, instant messaging, e-mail and cell phone -- which Miller describes as “conversation avoidance devices.” Never have people talked so much and had so little to say. Many, under the influence of television but unaware of it, substitute one-liners and sitcom patter for conversation.
Hodgon writes: “In Mr. Miller’s view, moreover, we live in a contentious, polarized atmosphere, where conversations veer between shouting matches on the one hand and touchy-feely nonjudgmental exchanges on the other.”
Miller celebrates some of the great talkers in what he calls “the conversible world” – Cicero, Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, David Hume, Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Virginia Woolf. Imagine that bunch gathered around a congenial, well-stocked table. Most of us, if invited to pull up a chair, would lapse into shameful silence. Today, Miller says, we have retreated into “anger communities,” and true conversation exceeds our abilities.
This feels accurate. People confuse a sputtering, one-sided rant, which turns quickly into huffy defensiveness when challenged by a listener, with conversation. As Thoreau said in Walden, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Another difficulty, not addressed in Hodgson’s review, is choice of subjects. What are the most tedious, conversation-stopping topics of conversation? Sports, of course. Automobiles, television shows recalled in excruciating detail, professional and domestic woes, almost anything to do with money or politics. Three-quarters of all conversations revert inevitably to at least one of these dead-end subjects, and speakers remain oblivious to the boredom they arouse.
In 1820, William Hazlitt wrote an essay titled “On the Conversation of Authors.” In its sequel, “The Same Subject Continued,” Hazlitt wrote: “The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as being heard.” Yes, delusional self-centeredness, the conviction that one’s words are timeless and one’s listeners are rapt, is conversational euthanasia. Hazlitt continues: “Lively sallies and connected discourse are very distant things. There are many persons of that impatient and restless turn of mind, that they cannot wait a moment for a conclusion, or follow up the thread of any argument. In the hurry on conversation their ideas are somehow huddled into sense; but in the intervals of thought, leave a great gap between.”
This combination of distracting electronic toys, egotism and a shrinking fund of worthwhile subjects has effectively killed most true conversation. Nor am I immune. Many of my most compelling, idea-filled, wide-ranging conversations take place through e-mails – a safe, semi-anonymous way to speak and, sometimes, to hide.