Utne Blogs > Literature

On Tonight's Menu, Good Conversation

by Cally Carswell 

Tags: essay writing, dinner parties, conversation, Standpoint, Alain de Botton,

Dinner Party“Finding oneself in a good conversation,” writes Alain de Botton for Standpoint, “is rather like stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night—and then never knowing how to get back there in daytime.”

In his fun and thoughtful essay, "It's Good to Talk," de Botton charts the way back, in the full light of day, to that beautiful square. Despite living in a society that prizes sociability, he argues, most of us are struggling amateurs at the art of conversation. Our first mistake is accepting the idea that conversational ability is a god-given talent, not a practiced skill. And then there’s shyness, the most frequent barrier to fruitful exchange.  

His prescription: rules. He suggests that guests at a dinner party should be given a conversation menu with questions like, “‘Is sex overrated?’” to help them get over their inhibitions about broaching such subjects with strangers. While the idea may seem artificial, says de Botton, the result—access to the “elusive, spontaneous and sincere bits of ourselves”—could be worth it.

Image courtesy of jemsweb, licensed under Creative Commons.