We Need To Talk

Why mere conversation is the most important thing in the world

| July/August 2002 Issue

Like most people we know, my husband, Eric, and I can go for frighteningly long periods of time without communicating about anything more meaningful than grocery lists and children’s schedules. We are doing our best to make those interactions as loving as possible (knowing all too well how quickly logistics can deteriorate into warfare) and to cultivate profound gratitude when nothing too essential gets forgotten. But it takes a lot of intention and effort to find time for real conversation.

XFONTLast week, for instance, there was literally no time we both were free between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. except a 20-minute period when Eric wanted to talk and I wanted to do yoga. So I refused to talk and he refused to do yoga and we had an efficient little spat that still left me time for yoga.

XFONT Utne Reader is running a cover story on conversation and Eric and I are scheduled to lead a workshop this summer called "Where Ideas and Community Meet" (see ad, p. 22) and we can’t even find the time to talk to one another. Luckily, the day after our impasse we had time alone on a a car trip and got another chance. I asked Eric to riff on the topic of conversation and I took notes, because I was in a spongelike mood. We need to see conversation as a cause, Eric said. It used to be that conversation was a means to an end; now it is an end in itself.

XFONTThat got my attention because I had recently been rendered speechless by someone referring to Utne Reader’s online community, Café Utne, and our history of getting people connected to each other in salons as "mere conversation," as opposed to what he considered "activism." If I hadn’t been speechless, I could have recounted one of the dozens of stories of powerful action that blossomed from passionate talk in the hundreds of salons we spawned a few years ago or in Café Utne today.

XFONTSo what is the difference between "mere" conversation and the kind that deserves to be embraced as a cause? First of all, Eric noted, we must acknowledge our general need for conversation and its absence in many people’s busy lives. We must recognize that conversing is an art form that requires skill and cultivation. The reason to respect it is this: Conversation is a lubricant for the connection and community we all crave. But real conversation requires an investment of time; small talk and shared histories make it safe for people to get beyond their own positions and personas and try on other points of view. When conversation really works, it is alchemical—as in consensus decision making, when, once people have expressed their opinions and have felt sincerely understood, they can let go of their attachments to a particular outcome. That’s when our hearts and minds meet, Eric said. The Greeks, he reminded me, thought the purpose of the brain was to cool the blood, while the actual locus of thought was in the heart.

XFONTToday we walked our dogs and picked up the conversation where we left off. I said that, for me, the ancient Greek idea of a heart-mind meld occurs most frequently when I feel I’ve transcended my usual limits in the presence of others who support me. And that is at least as likely to happen when I’m dancing or singing or doing some piece of work as when I’m exchanging ideas verbally. So when I think about advocating for conversation, I want to define it broadly.

XFONTEric agreed, but warned me not to discount verbal interaction. It’s still where most people start deepening their feelings of connection, he said.

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