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The Art of Conversation in a World Which Can’t Stop Talking

by playwright and Mantality podcast co-host, Chris O’Connor: https://chris-oconnor.co.uk

For the past few years, I have noticed more and more that the art of conversation is in decline. This is a hypothesis, not a theory, and is based on my own, and some friends’ anecdotal evidence. However, I believe there are solid foundations for this hypothesis and that, if true, we should be very worried. Conversations are an integral part of how we learn. They are the primary way that we interact with one another, and they are at the heart of our relationships. We are born with the ability to learn the basic tools for conversation, but we are not then masters of the craft. Conversation is an art, and it needs to be worked at. The beauty is that the better you get at it, the more meaningful your relationships and your life becomes.

What is a Conversation

Conversation, noun: talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information are exchanged.

The above definition from the Cambridge Dictionary perfectly captures the essence of a conversation. The use of the word ‘exchanged’ highlights how it is about not just giving but also receiving. Another crucial component is that ‘questions are asked and answered’ – conversations are a two-way street in which we answer the questions that are actually asked and learn from others by asking questions of our own. I also include nonverbal conversations here, such as sign language, plus the many forms of physical cues and the body language we also express when conversing with people. The origins of the word also capture an essential truth of conversation. It comes from the Latin conversari, which itself comes from the Latin words con, meaning ‘with’, and vertere, meaning ‘to turn or change’. In essence, to have a conversation with someone is to change, even ever so slightly, with them.

 

What Most Are Like Now

Monologue, noun: a prolonged talk or discourse by a single speaker, especially when dominating or monopolising a conversation.

This is the second definition from Dictionary.com of the word ‘monologue’, the first being a reference to the theatrical use, and I feel this captures many people’s experiences. I am sure we can all very quickly think of someone who this relates to, and if we are brutally honest with ourselves, there are probably times we have all succumbed to dominating conversations. However, far from being the domain of an intense, rogue family member, I now find this is a regular occurrence. In more and more ‘conversations’ I am involved in, I feel like an audience member in an immersive monologue, or in group settings, a series of competing monologues where people wait for a pause in proceedings to begin their own. Often, I find the illusion of conversation is given by relating the monologue to a topic that has been referenced, sometimes with no thought to the context in which it has been referenced. For example:

Person One: ‘My entire family was killed yesterday in a tragic bus accident in Barcelona.’

Person Two, nodding: ‘… yeah, yeah… I’ve booked to go to Barcelona  with some friends this summer. Really looking forward to it, actually.’

The above would be a particularly bad example of when to relate a conversation back to yourself. Still, I am sure what the above example captures is something many of us have experienced. This habit of relating the conversation back to yourself has been coined as ‘conversational narcissism’ by the sociologist Charles Derber. In some cases, this can come from a good place, a desire to understand what someone may be feeling by thinking about examples from our own life. In particular, if someone is going through a hard time, we might think of a similar time in our own lives to put ourselves in their shoes. However, we should be wary of relating things back to our own experiences, at least immediately. A better tactic would be to ask more supportive questions and be a better listener to allow someone to open up fully. And in most cases, conversational narcissism is just a bad habit of people turning the attention onto themselves.

Reasons

There are a few reasons that I think might be contributing to this decline. The first links with the idea of conversational narcissism, in that numerous studies have shown that actual narcissism is rising.

Now, it is important to note that the scientific jury is still out on this, and some people have disputed these findings, adding that many want it to be true, particularly with regards to demonising the young of today. Also, conversational narcissism doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has the personality disorder of narcissism. However, if this finding is true, it would certainly explain why a lot more of our conversations focus on the centring of the self, rather than a more open exchange of ideas. Perhaps this rise in narcissism is actually encouraging our conversations to be more self-centred.

The next contributing factor relates to the fact that reading is in decline. Research published by the National Literacy Trust last year showed that just 26% of under-18s spent some time reading each day, the lowest total since they began surveying reading habits. I believe this is crucial because reading is a receptive skill where we have to take in information and process it, much like we do when we listen, as opposed to writing or speaking where we are producing information. The more often we read, the more familiar we are at receiving and evaluating information.

And finally, I believe social media is impacting our conversational skills. My thinking here is that when on social media, we can just post our own thoughts, long or short, and get on with our day, not even looking at what might come back in the moment. We may check in later, but primarily it is the act of just venting our point without being invited to, and this is what we may go on to do when having real-world conversations. Now, this isn’t to rally wholly against social media. There is a lot of good it does, but we need to have a better conversation about how we use it and how it uses us. Ultimately, we want to create a world where we are proficient in online and offline communication.

Now, the above are all hypotheses as to why this might be happening, and they may be wrong. Also, I am fully aware that people with various disorders find social interaction or communication challenging. Obviously, the points I raise here do not apply to people for whom conversational norms are a challenging minefield. We should all be conscious that brains can work in many different ways. We should always be open to the idea that someone might be trying their hardest but is struggling to converse. However, I would hope that most people are perceptive enough to pick up when this is the case, and particularly with regards to new people. We should all be open to the idea that people might be trying their hardest to maintain a conversation.

I also want to make it clear that in no way is this linked to how good or bad people are. Some of the people I know who show traits of conversational narcissism are very kind, and somewhat ironically, very empathetic. Also, I am not blaming people here – I think that the world we now live in is encouraging these bad conversational habits and that we are all, in a sense, victims of this. I am instead highlighting what I think is a problem we should all be concerned about. The fightback begins with us all, fittingly, having an open conversation about this and making this part of what we teach our young people. To reiterate, I am not putting any blame on people here – I think the world is now structured in a way to encourage bad conversation. And we should all be concerned about this.

In aid of encouraging better conversations, here are some top tips that I have come across on my research into conversations over the years that I try to employ:

Active Listening – Actually pay careful attention to what is being said, rather than just hearing it. Maintain eye contact and give positive verbal and non-verbal cues to show you are paying attention. Remembering relevant parts from previous conversations with the same people will highlight that you have heard them.

Ask Relevant Questions – Ask questions or seek clarification which invite more information to be given.

Know When They Want to Exit – I am surely not alone in that I have had countless experiences where I have said ‘Right, anyway…’ and signified with my body language that I am about to exit this particular performance monologue only to be thwarted by the beginning of the next act.

Small Talk – Small talk is ok in some situations and can help us build rapport with strangers and connect with people we share little in common.

Understand the Flow – In good conversations, there is a natural flow from one person to the other. However, if you notice that you are dominating, ask some questions from the other person or persons involved.

Silence – Silence isn’t always a failure in a conversation, and it can show how comfortable you are with someone. Silence also allows for reflection and makes what we say more thoughtful. So, try and be silent for a few more additional seconds in conversations. As the Japanese proverb goes, the silent one is the one to listen to.

Overcoming Shyness – I am naturally more introverted and have worked hard to overcome an innate shyness. I still feel a rippling of anxiety at the start of conversations with someone new but expecting this and just moving forward anyway works wonders.

Give them a Chance – Not all conversations are interesting, and not all of them are interesting all of the time, but they are still worth working at for a short time, and then if needed, get out tactfully.

Never Check your Phone – Perhaps you have felt the pull of wanting to check your phone when a conversation has gone a bit flat. Don’t do this.

Many of us, myself included, have fallen into the traps of bad conversation above. We can’t all be perfect all of the time, but the more we practise the art of conversation, the better our lives will become.

However, by their nature, conversations are a two-way street. Unfortunately, if only one party is trying to have an open exchange and the other isn’t, then it will be another free ticket to an immersive monologue experience, duration unknown. Sadly, I think many just fall into the trap of accepting this and compete with a monologue of their own when there is a pause. This shouldn’t be the case, and we should try leading the way by being better conversationalists.

And on a wider point, in a world where polarisation is on the rise, fuelled by algorithms and social media, honest, open conversations are more important than ever. I hope we can begin to have more of them.