The Art of Conversation

Latest News Thursday, 10 Feb 2022

Is anyone else getting as interested as I am in observing young people’s conversations? Have you noticed that for many of them they are ‘empty’ and one way? How many conversations are you heard lately that remind you of a disconnected Facebook exchange? What’s happened to reciprocity? There seems to be no reciprocity or the building on a single topic that expands and meanders to places unknown.

There are fewer ‘rich’ conversations that build on questions we ask each other, where careful listening becomes central to the whole process. Conversations that were akin to two players playing table tennis on the same table with the ping pong ball going back and forth have become two separate tables as each person plays to no one at the other end. Endless ping pong balls just get hit to no one. Conversations are interrupted as one person trumps the other in an ego-centric trade-off that bears no relationship to the issues each is talking about. The conversation becomes more of a market exchange – a Facebook market exchange. It may go like this:

“David went camping with the boys all of last week.”

“I love going overseas. In fact, we are going overseas at the end of the year.”

“Dave went to the Northern Territory around Uluru to camp and the boys slept out.”

“I am going to book my tickets to go away and hopefully go via New York.”

I am sure the massive overuse of social media has been responsible for this erosion of quality conversation. Social media encourages the competing of the ‘me perspective’ and is designed to shun the building of one rich conversation that builds in intensity like a concert crescendo. In fact, social media has encouraged two (or multiple) orchestral scores rather than the contribution of many to one orchestra score.

These conversations are not nourishing the intellect or the soul. In fact, most of the time they are soul-destroying. Richard Glover wrote a brilliant article about this in November 2019 (How to Sidestep the Office Bore).  He rightly observes: “Often you’ll see people hovering on the edge of a group, watching the lips of whoever is speaking. Are they hard of hearing? More likely: the stopped listening ages ago and are waiting for the opposing lips to stop moving so their own lips may take over”. 

Sadly, this is a trait that afflicts many young men who seem to be oblivious as to how boring they have become. They have not quite woken up to the fact that the people around them who leave the ‘conversation’ to go to the bathroom have not so much got a weak bladder but have been afflicted by a sudden tiredness that can only be relieved in this way.

We connect on a deeper, much more worthwhile level when we have personal conversations but the massive move to social media communication sees this kind of ‘exchange’ now being replicated face to face. One survey I was reading suggested that 74 per cent of millennials choose to converse digitally rather than in person. And the more people communicate this way the more interpersonal communication diminishes. Holding a conversation, making eye contact, shaking hands or gesturing with facial expressions which show empathy or forgiveness are social etiquette skills being lost.   

The other part of these exchanges that I find excruciating is the extent to which they are littered with cliches. You know the ones: “All good”. “Busy?”. Or the most annoying of all - “What’s happening?”  

Long live the dinner table conversation and may I encourage you all to make this (particularly at Shabbat) sacrosanct. In these ways we can nurture the essential conversational skills that many of the young people are losing. 

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