To say that conversation is a declining art does not seem like a new insight; in fact, people have been complaining about the challenge of maintaining a true exchange between two or more people for centuries.
In his history of conversation, Stephen Miller discusses in detail the type of intellectual exchange valued by Hume, Dr. Johnson, Ben Franklin, and others during the 18th century and contrasts this with the often emotional, often angry interchanges that too often characterize conversation today.
He cites my late professor Walter Ong, the Jesuit polymath, who said that conversation means persons communing with persons; his focus was on interiority. Whether such our culture of talking can live up to this ideal is questionable; it was questionable in 1558, when Giovanni Della Casa wrote that good conversationalists are hard to find.
People meet to chat, have lunch, discuss books and hook up in various ways for interpersonal dialogue, yet the result is often one-sided. I think of how many people I have met who give monologues; there is no real exchange. They appear totally wrapped up in their own lives and problems. They pay perfunctory interest in me and my ideas and do not know how to listen.
To listen is an art requiring patience and the humility to put one's ego aside for a while as we focus attention fully on the person speaking, rather than pretending to listen while thinking of ways to respond. Often this inability to be a good listener is motivated by a desire to "win"--as if conversation were argument. What is also missing in many conversations is politeness, an essential ingredient in true conversation, as Miller shows.
For Miller, conversation has no real purpose except pleasure. It seems to me that its purpose is to stimulate ideas and learn, not to give advice or push an agenda or offer a confession. It requires practice and a certain period of time. It assumes a less hurried pace of life than most of us live today.
Ben Franklin agreed with Hume, Addison and Johnson that the art of pleasing in conversing does not come naturally; like good manners, it must be cultivated. Few of my students know how to have a class discussion; they make a point, when pushed, and don't know how to keep the ball going. Where are their models?
People, hungry for conversation, turn to talk radio or talk shows on TV, which offer no real conversations at all: they are full of advice and self-promotion. Or people turn to conversation avoidance devices--cell phones, I-pods, and the rest. No wonder an Amazon reviewer, Miller reports, wrote that "conversation is dead now."*
Miller's book would be a stimulating topic for a real conversation. He covers the waterfront from the classics to Jerry Springer and Eminem. He could say more about the obvious speed of our postmodern lives, making time for real conversation rare; but his intellectual history of what is essentially an intellectual pursuit (stimulation of ideas) is worth reading. And conversing about if you can find a partner who listens.
*I just received an email picturing young people at sports events, museums, beaches, and restaurants and staring at their cell phones. What Einstein predicted has come true: he feared that technology one day "will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."
So much for conversation and discussion.