How to Have a Conversation: It’s a dying art, struck down by text, email and messaging. Can we relearn the art of exchange?
Perhaps it was the opium talking, but Thomas de Quincey once wrote that an evening in the company of Samuel Coleridge was “like some great river”. The poet “swept at once into a continuous strain of dissertation, certainly the most novel, the most finely illustrated, and traversing the most spacious fields of thought, by transitions the most just and logical, that it was possible to conceive”.
Most of us have hopefully felt the unmoored elation of staying up all night talking with a friend or a lover. But Coleridge was that rare thing, a conversationalist: eloquent, witty, with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of cultural knowledge. Nor was he the only one back then who could claim his company was a performance art. David Hume once engaged in so much raillery at a dinner party he left Jean-Jacques Rousseau clinging to a table leg.
What makes a good conversationalist has changed little over the years. The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules, which were summarised in 2006 by The Economist: “Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.” But Cicero was lucky: he never went on a first date with someone more interested in their iPhone than his company.
And so I found myself one cold Tuesday evening in February talking to complete strangers, nibbling on vegetable quiche and sipping blackcurrant cordial. I had enrolled in The School of Life, an academy of “self-help” on Bloomsbury’s Marchmont Street, co-founded by philosopher Alain de Botton. For about £30 per session, students can take classes with resident “fellows” of the school on subjects such as “How to fill the God-shaped hole” or “How to make love last”. Tuesday’s topic was “How to have a conversation”.
I had arrived about 20 minutes early but the rest of the class was already there, talking to each other in the school shop that served that evening as a reception room. On the walls were shelves stocking manuals for how to be a better person. I felt like I was in Richard Curtis’s London: diverse, sincere and hip. I overheard an American accent.
Another pupil shuffled over and kindly invited me into her circle. A freelance television producer in her early forties, she was wearing a blue puffer dress covered in images of stars and planets. She was finding it hard to have meaningful relationships. Technology was partly to blame: “Sometimes you feel the BlackBerry is like a third person,” she said. This was a generational issue, too. Her nieces and nephews barely looked up from their gadgets when she entered a room. Another new acquaintance agreed, and described how Google had blocked off avenues of conversation with her boyfriend. “Before we would argue about this or that, but now we just look it up on Wikipedia,” she said.
Worries about the effect of technology on conversation are not new; George Orwell bemoaned houses having a radio in every room. And this was no class of Luddites. Everyone said they were on Facebook and several were avid tweeters.
However, there was unease about how email, instant messaging and texting had crept into the space formerly occupied by conversation. What was the point, asked a young man, of asking how someone’s day was when you’ve been emailing them from the office?