INTERVIEW

Women especially see conversation as 'you share something and the other person is supportive.' Blame Oprah.

ESSAYIST STEPHEN MILLER TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK CONVERSATION: A HISTORY OF A DECLINING ART

June 12 2006
INTERVIEW

Women especially see conversation as 'you share something and the other person is supportive.' Blame Oprah.

ESSAYIST STEPHEN MILLER TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK CONVERSATION: A HISTORY OF A DECLINING ART

June 12 2006

Women especially see conversation as 'you share something and the other person is supportive.' Blame Oprah.

ESSAYIST STEPHEN MILLER TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK CONVERSATION: A HISTORY OF A DECLINING ART

INTERVIEW

Q Your book argues that conversation is a dying art. Its golden age was the 18th century, when it was possible to see conversing, in a single room, such intellectual giants as Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon and David Hume. Why should we care that the art of conversation is dying— what’s been lost? What good is it?

A: Well, Hume and Johnson disagreed about religion and a lot of other things, but on conversation they agreed that it had three benefits. One, psychological. Johnson in particular thought that if you didn’t spend a lot of time with other people your dark passions might triumph. This is especially his own problem, because he thought he would go mad if he didn’t spend time with people. But Hume and Smith also thought that you need to spend time in what Hume called the conversable world—it’s good for your psyche, you’re going to be more stable, steady, and you also get more pleasure out of life. The second thing is intellectual. Hume and Johnson both argued that you really have to test your ideas with other people. If you just create them in the university it’s dangerous. Most of the great ideas that Hume and Smith developed were sort of tested in clubs in Edinburgh. The last thing is political. They all thought that England was sort of a melancholy nation, and that if they spent more time in coffee houses and being sociable, they’d be less likely to be infected with zealotry—they worried about religious

enthusiasm—and less likely to be infected with any kind of extreme passion, so it would make for a more civil population.

Q: Is there any reason to think those benefits wouldn’t flow today from conversation?

A: The benefits exist. A number of studies have said that being with other people is good for your mental health—you’re probably going to live longer, you’re going to have intellectual stimulation, stuff like that. But if you go to a Starbucks now—I sort of do this informal survey all the time—you see three-quarters of the people with their computer on or their cellphone, so we have all this technology that undermines or makes face-to-face conversation difficult. I argue that face-to-face conversation is the ideal form of conversation because you have nuance, you have gesture, you have tone. Phone conversation is second-best, and electronic conversation is bad in general, because things go awry in emails. I just had two examples in my own life in the last month where I had crazy emails from friends that misunderstood something I said.

Q: The same technologies are very present in our homes. That would indicate families aren’t talking much either.

A: There was a study in England that showed families are not having meals together. I have an example in my book—this is an extreme version—of a Washington family where there are three children, but every person has their own room and they all sort of say hello and then go and communicate with each other in the same house by instant messaging. And of

course a lot of people have television on all the time. Then they’re distracted by phones, and I think all these things undermine conversation. A teenage niece of mine—her father was complaining to me that she just goes home, grunts something to her parents, and runs up to her room and does email, instant messaging or whatever, for six hours.

Q: Kids aren’t stupid and they like to communicate. If email and text messaging are difficult mediums to converse in, why aren’t they picking up the phone? What do they find so satisfying about these alternatives?

A Well, I think with instant messaging and email there’s less risk involved. In other words, you can get out of it instead of making a fool of yourself, you don’t worry about boring someone. You’re more in control. Also, you can say things that you wouldn’t say in person—you can create a character. You can put your best face forward. So if anyone is the least bit shy or uncomfortable with face-to-face interaction this is the way to go.

Q: So what’s a healthy amount of conversation in the home?

A: It would be very nice if a family sat down together for dinner and just chatted about their day, or if a sensitive topic came up, they could discuss it without screaming at each other. I have to compliment myself right now because I have two grown daughters and we were in a restaurant in New York having lunch,

and as we were leaving, the waiter said, “Gosh, you guys talk so well with each other! I haven’t seen a family like that for a long time.” So, you know, I don’t know how you promote this if you don’t have it, but I think one thing you have to do is, say, leave your cellphones, your iPods and TV off. With those things as a distraction, you’re never going to have a conversation.

Q: Let’s say a family, like the one in Washington you used as an example, decides to sit down for dinner. What should they talk about?

A: Oh, I say in my book any subject is fine. A number of the reviewers picked up this quote I had from Virginia Woolf where she describes a forum in which you’re not allowed to say anything serious. I mean, she liked conversation too, but she liked it to be not solemn—it could range about a wide variety of topics. In my own family we talk about everything, and we get into arguments. Rarely do they go off the rails so we have to stop, but sometimes they do. I mean, there is that risk always, and nowadays the risk is worse because people are easily offended if you disagree with them.

Q: Yeah, that kind of forestalls conversation, doesn’t it? People just seem to be, on the one hand, touchy themselves, but also fearful of giving offence.

A: Another recent book on conversation mentions that a woman stopped having dinner parties because people started screaming at each other. Now she just prefers to watch talk shows. I think it’s a problem, and I think people have to learn how to be goodhumoured, and so if they do criticize someone they do it in a good-humoured fashion. And then people have to get away from this notion that conversation is autobiographical and you support somebody for their view of life. No, it’s not autobiographical. When you go to the conversable world you leave your personal, your inner life, somewhere else. That’s hard for people. We live in a world where everybody is psychological, and so I think a lot of women in particular see conversation as, you say something and then the other person... you share something and the other person is supportive.

Q: Supportive, yes. It’s like the Oprah-ization of conversation.

A: Absolutely. I think it makes conversation impossible, because when people use the word “share”—after all when you share some food with someone the person isn’t supposed to say, “Oh, thanks for giving me this pie, but it’s terrible, I don’t like it”—it just casts a blanket of excessive politeness on the conversation, and then disagreement is seen as a personal attack.

Q: What makes a good conversationalist? What are the essential attributes?

A: Well, first you have to be a good listener, and most people are bad listeners because

I think it’s something you have to learn, and it’s not easy to learn. We naturally want to dominate, we want to talk ourselves. The second thing is being good-humoured, not to get angry or pontificate or be dogmatic. I mean, if you have both those things then you’re 90 per cent there. Of course there are other things—it’s good to be witty, but how many people are that clever? But people who are good listeners and who are good-humoured will have better conversations, and more of them.

Q There is a sense—and I guess this is related to the Oprah thing—that people feel that in order to contribute to a conversation you should talk about your personal problems, what you’re upset about or angry about—that you should unburden yourself to your listener. You’re saying that’s a no-no?

A: I think it’s a big no-no. If someone wants to make a point about something that happened to him medically and it fits the story and it’s not too long, fine. But do you want friends who are needy, who always come to you with their personal problems, asking “What do I do now?” These friends are a burden and eventually you won’t want to spend time with them. In the 18th-century coffee houses and clubs, people didn’t go to burden others with their problems. I think this brings us back to the Oprah thing. People want to give advice or they want advice—if you watch Oprah nobody says to Oprah, “Oh, I don’t agree with you, Oprah,” they always come on the program and either tell some life story that’s sort of moving or they want Oprah to tell them how to live their lives.

Q: In terms of conversational style, is it necessary to keep up a steady flow of thoughts and words? Is there room for pauses and silence for consideration, reflection within conversation?

A: Yes. I don’t think you can have conversation go the pace of repartee in an Oscar Wilde play. I mean, real-life conversation is filled with pauses. But what you don’t want is one person telling a long-winded story, one person dominating the conversation, you want some give-and-take.

Q: A person should be able to make a pause or just maintain silence without being considered autistic or something.

A: Yeah, it’s a question of how long. But some people are just not as forthright or as gregarious as others, and they can still participate in a conversation but in a lesser way.

Q: There is a tradition in American culturein literature, in movies—of a more laccmic approach to conversing. You note its presence in Hemingway novels and film noir. Real men don’t talk. Conversation is artificial and inauthentic.

A: It’s fake, right. There are two things going on. First, there’s Rousseau’s notion

about conversation, the whole good-humoured banter and politeness—the traits Hume and Johnson and other 18th-century writers praised. Rousseau despised the world of the salon, he thought men who went regularly to an evening thing run by a woman were emasculating themselves. So he promotes that notion that talking is emasculating. But in the American tradition there’s also this other aspect, that American men are strong and they say their point of view and they don’t talk a lot, and to talk a lot is somehow not masculine.

Q: You document a lot of trends that seem to be going against a more conversational society, and toward a more atomized and isolated social structure. Is it fair to say you are pessimistic about the future of conversation?

A: A number of reviewers and talk show hosts really were disturbed by my negative view of the future. I do qualify it, I do point out some positive trends, like discussion groups, book clubs, and so forth and so on, but to me that’s a very small number of people, and I do

‘The parents and kids communicate with each other in the same house by instant messaging'

say the forces undermining conversation are stronger than the forces nourishing it. It does seem like we’re overwhelmed with these electronic distractions that make it easy for people to sort of cocoon themselves. You know, they get up in the morning and they put on their electronic gear. I look out my window and I see teenagers waiting for a school bus, all with their iPods on. They go home and play video games. I can’t imagine that video games are too good for promoting sociability. M