The Great Divide

How do we talk when we disagree?

When did arguing become synonymous with fighting? Why do we clam up or blow our tops at the first sign of disagreement? Have we lost our ability to talk reasonably across a divide? Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (Yale University Press, 2006), points his finger at a culture that lauds boisterous opinion over measured reflection, keeps quiet for fear of appearing to be judgmental, and takes daily refuge in the anonymous online world. As we approach the holiday season and its inevitable dinner-table encounters with different-minded relatives, Utne Reader rang up one of conversation’s most vociferous enthusiasts to chat about how we lost our gift of gab and how to get it back.


In your book, you describe the golden age of conversation, an 18th-century culture of articulate, intelligent exchange that’s a long shot from how we communicate today. In a modern context, what would ideal conversation be like?

This is somewhat simplistic, but it’s a good start: The best conversations are playful. They go different places; people are throwing out ideas, and no one is pronouncing on things. They should be a bit like a game or a sport. Conversation should be enjoyable in its own right. It’s not something you learn from, like how to get rich or lose weight or whatever. It has intrinsic rewards.

Today we have this terrible war, and people sometimes think that it’s irresponsible to be playful, that they have to pronounce, they have to be earnest. Well, you can’t live that way.

How can a disagreement be playful?

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