This is totally anecdotal. Subjective. Not data driven.
But I’m pretty sure that people are gradually losing the art of conversation.
Not that we don’t talk. I think we talk more than ever. But it seems to me that we too often talk at each other, not with. We’re flashing aural bumper stickers at each other.
I’m talking about this thing where conversation can be a medium for learning, but it seems to have morphed, too often, into an opportunity for self-promotion.
For example: You tell me you’re going to Paris. I could say, “Oh, where are you staying?” “Business or pleasures?” “Do you have friends there?” I could seek more information and then see where it goes.
Instead, I say. “I’ve been to Paris. I love Paris. I stayed in the Marais. I had the best falafel every In Paris. Can you believe it?”
And boom. I’ve stopped things in their tracks. Now it’s not a back-and-forth, let’s compare notes, let’s explore where we interpreted things differently, or one of us like something the other didn’t, and learn something new.
Now it feels like a contest of sorts, a competition of our experiences.
This happens all the time. Travel, restaurants/food, and maybe especially health care. One person mentions having their gall bladder out, and next thing you know, their friend is off on a tale about his gout.
The initial impulse is still pure. That is, say, you tell me you’re taking care of a sick relative. I say, yeah, I know what that’s like because…”. The idea being to signal the other party that we have something in common, you’re not alone, you can talk to me.
But in the modern world, it can quickly become a sort of SNL skit about how my experience trumps yours. We’re unwittingly running commercials for ourselves.
I think this is real, and it’s something that has developed in my lifetime. And I have a theory about it. Namely, it’s the hyper-commercialization of our culture, particularly since around the 80s, when we started using terms like, “You have to learn to market yourself.” To the point where, the other day, I saw an ad for a seminar on “How to become a brand.”
As the idea that selling ourselves is a 24-hour job took root, bragging and self-promoting somehow shifted from a vice to a virtue, and only suckers didn’t get the memo.
Fortunately, conversation isn’t extinct. A good conversation can be a little epiphany. You find out something about another person you’d never have guessed. You find out what you had wrong about them. It can make you take a fresh look at your own opinions and find them wanting. You find out you have common ground you’d never believe.
No one’s immune from the conversation-killing bug, including me. I try to catch myself and remind myself: Ask questions — you learn more from listening than talking. It’s OK to bring up your own experience in the interest of exploring the topic, but not with the intent of changing the spotlight. The spotlight will shift back and forth if you let it. And, well, just listen.
I’ll try to remember all that, and talk with you soon, I hope.