This article is part of a package on the golden age of re-engagement. For more, read The Lonely American: Choosing to reconnect in the 21st century, All in the Neighborhood : Want to see the world? Start by staying home., One Nation, Indivisible : Reconnecting the public with its public servants.
Modern society is notably sociable in temper. Hermits have long been out of fashion. When guidebooks praise a city, they point to its number of bars and clubs. We’re all meant to know how to keep a conversation going. Having no friends is one of the greater remaining taboos.
Yet it is striking how bad most of us are at having a conversation, chiefly because we insist that knowing how to talk to other people is something we are born with, rather than an art dependent on the acquisition of a range of odd and artificially acquired skills. We rightly accept that improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes, and as a result, the market is flooded with television programs and books promising to take us through the intricacies of assembling aubergine paté or poached pears. But we show no such caution and modesty when it comes to conversation. Here we blithely assume that all will go well, so long as the place settings are attractive and the soup warm. Yet the great majority of conversations we have are rather stale—and it generally remains a mystery how, every now and then, they become more worthwhile. Finding oneself in a good conversation 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.
Why do conversations go wrong? Shyness has a lot to answer for. We get scared of opening our souls because we falsely exaggerate the difference between ourselves and others. We imagine that others don’t share in our vulnerabilities or interests. We display only our strengths—and hence become boring, for it is in the revelation of our weaknesses, in the display of our mortality in all its dimensions, that people grow sympathetic. It’s almost impossible to be bored when people tell you what they are scared of or whom they desire.
So what can be done to help liberate us? We need to learn some manners. The suggestion could sound archaic. There’s a well-worn tradition of mocking the fancy dinner party. Yet history shows that conversations grow interesting and sincere precisely when people accept a little artificiality in the proceedings. Consider the record of the greatest conversation in the Western tradition, Plato’s Symposium. The evening is as minutely choreographed as a piece of theater. A group of intellectual Athenians takes it in turn to deliver discourses on the nature of love while eating a banquet featuring olives and seafood. A close eye is kept on the clock. People avoid unnecessary digressions. There is no mention of the weather. The hosts are keen to give their guests the greatest of dinner-party gifts: some ideas to take home with them.
It was to the ancient Greeks that the French aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie looked when they began to hold their famous salons in 18th-century Paris. Fed up with the idle chatter of the court at Versailles, where the talk centered relentlessly on who had shot what and in which forest, they wanted to make their homes into the spiritual descendants of Socrates’ dining room. One of the greatest hostesses of the period, Sophie de Condorcet, wrote down a touching set of rules for a successful evening. Guests had to arrive with a number of conversational topics and explore them with the same rigor as a scholar in a library, except that rather than consulting books, the other guests were to provide the insights. Examples of fitting topics included: What is the wisest way to approach one’s own death? Can governments make us good or only obedient?
The topics might not precisely fit the agenda of early-21st-century men and women, but the logic behind Madame de Condorcet’s approach—namely, that we need to plan a little in order to have a good conversation—is still valid. A few years back the academic Theodore Zeldin tried to raise the art of conversation in our own times when he began a series of public meals in Oxford. Groups of strangers came together and agreed to lay aside their inhibitions and explore ideas, regrets, and aspirations. Zeldin provided a conversation menu with questions like these: Which of my ambitions is likely to remain unfulfilled? Is sex overrated?
The questions certainly sound surprising, even shocking. We’d almost never dare to bring up such matters with a stranger. Instead, we’d tiptoe delicately around neutral topics found in the media while ignoring the fact that most of us are really looking for an exchange of vulnerable material. So afraid are we of sounding odd, that we instead too readily accept boredom.
We should be braver. An evening comes alive when we meet people who express our very own thoughts, but with a clarity and psychological accuracy we could not match. They know us better than we know ourselves. What was shy and confused within us is unapologetically and cogently phrased in them, our pleasure at the meeting indicating that we have found a piece of ourselves, a sentence or two built of the very substance of which our own minds are made. The dinner party companion has located words to depict a situation we thought ourselves alone in feeling, and for a few moments, we are like two lovers on an early dinner date thrilled to discover how much they share (and so unable to do more than graze at the food in front of them).
We should be more demanding of our social lives. Rather than seeing a successful encounter as a rare gift, we should expect to engineer one regularly. The history of conversation suggests that it’s when there are heavy-handed rules around that our spirit can best be set free. We might be tempted to giggle at the artificiality of a conversation menu or the pretentiousness of Madame de Condorcet’s dinner parties—and yet we should welcome them for helping us get to the elusive, spontaneous, and sincere bits of ourselves.
Alain de Botton’s newest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, will be published in June. Excerpted from Standpoint(Nov. 2008), a London-based magazine that celebrates the arts and values of our civilization; www.standpointmag.co.uk.