What has happened to the art of conversation? By conversation I do not mean merely word exchanges between individuals. I am thinking, rather, of one of the highest manifestations of human intelligence the ability to transform abstractions into language; the ability to convey images from one mind to another; the ability to build a mutual edifice of ideas: in short, the ability to engage in a civilizing experience.
Where does one find good conversation these days? Certainly not in the presence of the television set, which consume half of the average American’s non-sleeping hour. Much of the remaining free time is given to games. No matter how rewarding “bridge talk” may be, it is not conversation. Neither is chatter.
What makes good conversation? In the first place, it is essentially a mutual search for the essence of things. It is a zestful transaction, not a briefing or a lecture. Poet Pushkin correctly identified the willingness to listen as one of the vital ingredients of any exchange. When two people are talking at the same time, the result is not conversation-it is collision.
Nothing is more destructive of good talk than participant to hold the ball too long, like an overzealous basket ball dribbler playing to the gallery. Pity the husband or wife with a garrulous mate who insists on talking long past the point where he or she has anything to say.
To be meaningful, a conversation should head in a general direction. It need not be artfully plotted, but it should be gracefully kept on course guided by unforeseen ideas.
It has been said that if speech is silver, silence is gold; certainly silence is preferable, under most circumstances, to inconsequential chit chat. Why is it, then, that so many people are discomfited by the absence of human sound waves? Why are they not willing merely to sit with each other, silently enjoying the unheard but real linkages of congeniality and understanding? “Made conversation” should not be a necessity among intimates. If there is nothing to say, do not say it.
It is true that strangers meeting for first time seem to feel uncomfortable if they do not engage in small talk. Usually this is harmless and even necessary if strangers are to size each other up, but, small talk aside, what are some elementary rules for general conversation?
Let us remember that our illnesses and operation are not something to offer gratuitously to friends at conversation time.
Conversation need not always be purposeful, but it must at least be for pleasure. It should be congenial, aiming, for example, at knowing better one’s conversation partner. Above all, it should be joyful and amiable, for, as essayist a good conversation is a fragile thing that must be nurtured carefully.
And finally, encourage the pixie of the conversation who can add zest. Our talk too often reflects the dull things that we do all day. Provocation, whimsy, laughter, mockery and flirtation all have their place in the art of good conversation, of which it was long ago said, be prompt without being stubborn, refute without argument, cloth weighty matters in a motley garb.