The Art of a Lively Conversation

Be real. Be brave. Be bold. (And learn some manners.)

| March-April 2009

  • Lively Conversation

    image by Paul Wearing

  • Lively Conversation

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?

2/1/2015 11:45:11 AM

My high students just did a Socratic Seminar, a dialogue about the novel we had read (Life of Pi). The class that felt as if beautiful sparks were flying was the class that had prepared well with their questions. The class that struggled to converse, was the one that came in unprepared, with few questions, AND students were not mentally unprepared to share of themselves. I will have them read this article if you don't mind my sharing!

6/25/2009 2:03:22 PM

I wish I could send this article to my dates as required reading.

6/25/2009 2:02:28 PM

I wish I could send this article to my dates as required reading.

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