Have you ever heard the common complaint that conversation is dying, drowned out by the constant buzz of technology and the younger generation’s apparent disinterest in face-to-face interaction? It’s a recurring lament, echoing through the ages. Even in the past, people bemoaned the decline of meaningful discourse. But is conversation truly in dire straits?
Let’s take a step back and see if this notion holds true. Long before our time, our ancestors engaged in lively discussions, fueling ideas like human rights, constitutional government, and modern art. Nowadays, some argue that we’ve become tongue-tied slaves to our phones, regurgitating clichéd talking points or summarizing TV shows. In an attempt to remedy this, card games with conversation prompts have sprung up, trying to teach basic human interaction skills. Will AI like ChatGPT eventually draft our conversations for us? Perhaps it can’t be any worse than the clichés we often utter ourselves.
But let’s not rush to mourn the art of conversation just yet. Throughout history, people have fretted about its decline, often pointing fingers at women or the youth. Even satirists like Jonathan Swift criticized the vapid banter of the upper class in their time.
Recently, Paula Marantz Cohen added her voice to this discussion in her book, “Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation.” Cohen argues that genuine conversation requires vulnerability and a willingness to engage with others in an unhurried, improvisational manner. Drawing inspiration from the past, she looks to the salons of the French Enlightenment, Samuel Johnson’s eloquence in 18th-century London, and the candid discussions of Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group.
Cohen explores the elements that make for captivating discussions—avoiding groupthink, addressing misinformation, and not letting excessive drinking hinder meaningful exchange. She acknowledges that these same factors that make us anxious about conversing also make it exciting. In conversation, we expose our character, knowledge, wit, and even our vulnerabilities. Successful dialogue embraces the differences between us, making it a source of shared enjoyment.
It’s worth noting that good conversation can take various forms. It might be spirited, even pugilistic, like a sparring match, where opposing ideas clash, lifting each other up in the process. On the other hand, it can also blossom from a gentler sense of equality, where participants openly share their thoughts and feelings.
The atmosphere is a critical ingredient for meaningful conversation too. A comfortable setting, good food, and drink provide the perfect environment for personalities to mingle and ideas to flow, much like the harmonious blend of ingredients in a recipe.
Cohen raises a concern about groupthink, which can lead to “group talk,” where dissenting opinions are silenced, and everyone conforms to the same ideas. She rightly criticizes this kind of recycled talk as dull and unproductive. However, Cohen’s focus is not on persuading others but on cherishing conversation as an end in itself—a form of open-ended play that satisfies our social and intellectual needs.
Although Cohen recognizes the importance of conversation for acquiring knowledge, she doesn’t view it solely as a means to an end. Rather, she cherishes the pleasure of engaging in fluent verbal interchange. While Plato’s dialogues exemplify the pursuit of truth through thoughtful questioning, Cohen’s exploration of literary salons and other conversational circles highlights that talk can be equally valuable when it involves gossip, banter, or flirtation.
In these sparkling exchanges, knowledge and delight intertwine, adding a touch of magic to the art of conversation. So, rather than merely mourn its decline, let’s embrace the timeless joy and fascination of a well-conducted exchange of ideas, where the pleasure of the process itself reigns supreme.