The Art of Conversation

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My secret dream, could I travel back in time, is to be Madame de Staël in eighteenth-century Paris, hosting salons of witty, intellectually curious writers and thinkers and artists. She was not beautiful, but her conversation was luminous and seductive, pulling from her guests ideas they had not realized they were capable of conceiving.

Conversation is just as vital now, a glue for friendship, a bridge to romance, a necessity in any workplace, and a source of energy and creativity and understanding. Until fairly recently, there were all sorts of opportunities to practice: over bridge, at dinner parties, after church, at the beauty parlor or the barber shop, sitting out on your front porch…. People conversed to entertain one another. Now our goal is in-and-out speed, and chat seems intrusive; we leave others to their private amusements and save our wittiest barbs for Twitter. Clubs are passé, dinner parties too complicated, and most gatherings now are to Network or brainstorm Innovation. What used to be called society is now depressingly pragmatic, and that squashes the art of conversation altogether. Like spontaneity, conversation must exist without an agenda, enjoyed for its own sake.

How do we recover the art? All most of the “experts” can tell us is to show interest by leaning forward, smiling and nodding, and listening more than we speak. Which still leaves us unsure what to talk about, or how to make it fun.

When friends my age re-enter the dating world, I watch with a shudder. First dates are the toughest conversation of all, full of hopeful, breezy exchanges that show only the amusing tips of past icebergs. One must ask clever and interesting questions without any hint of probing. I know this from painful experience: once, floundering on a first date, I slipped into journalist mode and fired questions nonstop. Finally the poor guy snapped, “This is not an interview.”

I slunk home. When I met my future husband a few years later, what I fell in love with (other than his ability to whisper the Lab I was dogsitting from frantic misbehavior into a puddle of sweet docility) was how much I enjoyed our conversations. Thirty years later, we are practiced at the marital extremes, shifting easily from “Where should we plant the hostas?” to “Is democracy crumbling?” But for that middle swath, the light and casual conversation with a stranger that needs to sparkle without blinding them, I am as rusty as a sunken ironclad.

Odd that I should feel so out of practice, given that I ask questions for a living. Over the years, I have collected some doozies:

What do you hope for, yet fear?

What do the people who love you have to forgive you for?

As a child, what were you too and what were you not enough?

Who have you cut out of your life and why?

What have been the biggest surprises of your life?

If you were going to commit a crime, what would you choose?

What, for you, is the most reliable source of joy?

Alas, one cannot toss such questions into most social occasions; they are, it seems, too startling. This, too, I have learned from painful experience. When people say, in a low, mocking tone, “Whoa, that’s deep,”—or the other accusation, “heavy,” they are not enjoying the parlor game.

Personally, I prefer deep and heavy to the stock first question, “And what do you do?”—which only tempts me to retort, “My best.” Even the corporate world has begun to realize the thinness of occupational inquiry: an article on inc.com suggests asking instead, “What’s your story?” (which feels a little too vague), “What makes you smile when you get up in the morning?” (too chirpy), “What is the one book that has influenced you the most?” (of course I love that one, but anyone who does will find it impossible to narrow to one), “What absolutely excites you right now?” (too extra), or “What’s the most important thing I should know about you?” (too soon).

I say we tweak those, maybe ask, “What do you enjoy doing?”—which could be work or a hobby or playing with your kids or eating cupcakes—and then move a little further: “What are you paying attention to these days?” or “What do you find interesting?” That fallback “What do you do” is reductive, potentially classist, and boring, because it makes the way we earn a living more important than anything else and implies that the job will reveal something important about us, when so often, a job is utility, happenstance, something to be got through in order to eat, sleep someplace warm, and have a little time off for what we treasure.

What I really want to know about someone is “What are the tensions that have run through your life?” and “What have you figured out about yourself, about human nature, about this whole crazy world?” But those questions require a bottle of wine and hard-earned mutual trust.

Why, though? What scares us about serious questions, and why do they feel so risky? One can only learn so much about someone from hearing them recount their latest golf game or gall bladder surgery. (Actually, we could probably learn all we need to know from such conversations, if we listened hard enough, but extracted the essence from the mundane is tricky and exhausting.) Is it that people just throw everything they have into their work (or their golf game), and then show up too tired to talk about anything but gossip, the weather, and quotidian experiences that will be forgotten in a week? Or maybe the forgettable is preferred because it will not provoke or be judged harshly?

The question I ought to ask is why I have such a need to ask awkward or weird or challenging questions. In movies, I always love the disruptive faux pas, the moments where a child blurts what the adults are refraining from saying or the diplomat’s wife gets drunk and insists on introducing everyone to the elephant in the room. Taboos and secrets do us little good.

Still, when someone tells me, as a startled compliment, how brave I am to be so confessional, my stomach gives a tiny lurch. Should I be ashamed? I only mean to start a conversation. But if the truths of my existence are confessions and require bravery, perhaps I have glossed over their real awfulness. Or maybe—this feels more true—I like confessing, expecting forgiveness because years of Catholicism promised it. The more we open up about who we are, the easier it is to be human—a word that means the opposite of perfect, and thus prompts the best conversations.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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