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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Act of Conversation

Samuel Johnson once explained to James Boswell his mind on conversation:

“There must, in the first place, be knowledge, there must be materials; in the second place, there must be a command of words; in the third place, there must be imagination, to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen in; and in the fourth place, there must be presence of mind, and a resolution that is not to be overcome by failures; this last is an essential requisite; for want of it many people do not excel in conversation.”

As much as we cannot want to intellectualize all subjects, we do find a need to challenge our friends, acquaintances, and even ourselves. We are social animals, and the need for interaction demands the need for conversation. “Never is there more a need for reasonable conversation than in today’s society, wherever people live.” Do you know where this quote comes from? It’s familiar, isn’t it? It comes from no one famous, in fact, because I just wrote it. Yet we have all heard something like it spoken or written somewhere. And, it cannot be more wrong.

Today is no more important, and likely less so, than the dark days of WWII; the blighted years of politically and socially banned books (pick your favorite century); 1,200 years of Catholic Inquisition combating “heresy”; or all of history’s oppression of women (no less objectionable to what is found today in India or throughout the Muslim Middle East and Africa). There has been, historically, a distinct lack of social conversation available to people where it could affect change. Much of the “good” conversation reserved itself inside senatorial houses, philosopher’s academies, monarchical courts, and those private chambers of the social elite.

Since the advent of the printing press, and, later, the establishment of largely parliamentary and democratic societies, people worked at making conversation a vital structure of society’s machinery. When governments failed, too often, at debate and compromise,at least the educated people demonstrated ample enthusiasm to conversation’s benefits.

In Parisian parlors of the 17th and 18th centuries, conversation came into its own. A whole coterie of parlor groups met, sometimes in secret, to discuss issues of the day, including politics, male-female relationships, sex (without the potty talk), and art of all kinds. For a time, most of those who met were women (of high means). The French were known already for their manners, their dress, their codes of honor (among both sexes). The women, it has been argue (“The Age of Conversation” by Benedetta Craveri) took it upon themselves to improve society (and their own positions within) by improving the manners and conversation of the French males. Success for women and society, on that smallish level, was great. Many of these parlor members kept diaries, and recorded conversations after a night of talk. Some have been published, but either have not been translated into English, or wallow away somewhere in a long-since out-of-print copy on a library shelf.

Over in England, in the middle half of the 18th century, Dr. Samuel Johnson had elevated conversation to somewhat of an art form. He had become famous for his “Dictionary of the English Language” (1755), and for writing twice-weekly essays under the title “The Rambler.” What Johnson might have lacked in oratorical compromise, he made up for in breadth of subjects he was willing and able to discuss. He particularly liked questions of liberty, and argued vehemently against changing one’s religion. Regardless of subject matter, Johnson demanded people bring knowledge to a conversation. Force of character and demonstrative positioning meant nothing if an argument did not come with humanist logic.

Today’s high-speed media environment could learn a lot from Dr. Johnson. The term “news cycle” has helped to fracture any attempt at sustained speech, or conversation. Sure, we have political and social talk shows, but too often they flounder in the sea of entertainment channels. And the American mind suffers from this lack.

While “The Simpsons,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “American Idol” achieve high viewer ratings — that turn advertising into gold dust — can we say they do something for conversation? Perhaps. And what is the difference between those entertainment programs and “60 Minutes” newsmagazine to initiate conversation? Any tense, psycho-political drama brings up important issues. An amateur-hour program can induce people to talk about what vocal art is … and is not. Exploring hot news topics or celebrity gossip can engage social discussion or reminiscences. But do any of these actually make discussion rather than seem to make discussion? Of course, we must not leave out the emergence of TWITTER and FACEBOOK. Conversation? Yes … but make it quick, because I’m stepping off the train.

If one looks at blogs, we find 4-5 sentence “posts” that often quote other sources (some spurious), or else link to an article written by—surprise!—a professional with a byline at a national newspaper or magazine. These posts are likely followed by shorter comments. Both resemble a nature that is difficult to define as conversation. Repetitive banter may more aptly describe their character. Nevertheless, one can argue, people are “connecting” where recently they were merely sitting in front of the television.

If there is yet conversation among us, and I think there is, it should get into the daily diet of all thinking people. I’m suggesting that people, if they are not doing so, get into the habit of talking about subjects that come to their minds, and not necessarily those in the news. Subjects that excite you, trouble you, irritate you (always a classic), or subjects you know little about but want to try to understand them through conversation with family, a lover, friends, colleagues.

I have my own suggestions: What thing of beauty have you seen today? How can you talk about that as art? Engagement with society is not a spectator sport, but something, I think, is of intrinsic importance to our individual lives.


  Carl Purdon wrote @ July 26th, 2012 at 2:54 am

One positive aspect of conversations on Twitter, I think, is that you get to know a person based on what they say, or don’t say, instead of physical characteristics such as appearance and accent. You also meet people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. We have the ability to interact with people we would never interact with in our “real” worlds.

Of course you have to actively pursue a meaningful conversation amid the “snowflakes” of the twitter stream. I have a Twitter list to which I add only people I actually talk to from time to time (a few exceptions are people who really interest me but I haven’t yet conversed with). I add this list in Tweetdeck and monitor it. I rarely ever look at the main Twitter stream.

Years and years ago I used ICQ. It was during the days when you could simply search for people to talk to by entering different criteria, such as location, interests, and the like. They later removed this feature for some reason. Back then I loved to search out people in other countries and strike up conversations. It was the first time I realized that people all over the world are basically the same. We all want the same things, by and large. Honestly, before those conversations I actually believed that everyone who lived in Russia hated Americans and wanted to hurt us.

One of the most memorable conversations I had was with a man in Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm.

And there was a conversation one night that happened by accident. A teenage girl from Canada sent me a message and said she was going to take some pills and kill herself because she was mad at her parents. We were total strangers and I don’t know why she sent the message. Anyway, I stayed up all night long talking to her. I had no idea what to say, so I just winged it. I “listened” to her rant against her parents and gave her my honest opinion that they were doing the right thing (based on what she was telling me). It made her mad at first, but eventually she calmed down. A couple weeks later I got another message from her. She said she had talked to her parents and things were much better. She told me she really had intended to take those pills that night. It was the only two times I ever had contact with her. I suppose she just needed someone to listen to her, and it didn’t matter (perhaps it helped) that it was a total stranger at the other end of a keyboard.

I think the content is more important to a good conversation than the format.

Great post, by the way.

  MarkBeyer wrote @ July 27th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

That’s some heavy stuff, Carl. And yet, with your act of conversation — the kind that’s elemental to our post-postmodern times — it made a difference. This is how the young (from 9 to 29, really; maybe 39!) get socialized and enculturated (coinage!). I think you’d like “The Book of Great Conversations” ed. Bianccoli, a collection of conversations between famous people (or not so famous) throughout history. It’s old; its out of print. But you can find it. I blogged about it last month:


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