Why good conversations matter
23 Jun 2011 | Alain de Botton
Most conversation is just idle chatter, so how do we
make talking to each other more meaningful? Alain de Botton
recommends sharing our fears and dreams.
Modern society is notably sociable in temper. Hermits have long
been out of fashion. When guidebooks wish to praise a city, they
point to its number of bars and clubs. We're all meant to know how
to keep a conversation flowing. Having no friends is one of the
greater remaining taboos.
And yet despite this, it is striking how bad most of us are at
having a conversation, chiefly because we insist that knowing how
to talk to other people is something we are born knowing how to do,
rather than an art dependent on a range of odd and
artificially-acquired skills. We rightly accept that improvisation
in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes and as a
result, the market is flooded with television programmes and books
promising to take us through the intricacies of assembling
aubergine pate or poached pears. But we show no such caution and
modesty when it comes to conversation. Here with blithely assume
that all will go well, so long as the place settings are attractive
and the soup warm.
And yet I hope I'm not the odd one in suggesting that the great
majority of conversations we have are rather stale - and it
generally remains a mystery how, every now and then, they become
more worthwhile. Finding oneself in a good conversation is rather
like stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night -
and then never knowing how to get back there in daytime.
What are some of the reasons why conversations go wrong? Shyness
has a lot to answer for. We get scared of opening our souls because
we falsely exaggerate the difference between ourselves and others.
We imagine that others don't share in our vulnerabilities or
interests. We display only our strengths - and hence become boring,
for it is typically in the revelation of our weaknesses, in our
display of our mortality in all its dimensions, that people grow
sympathetic. It's almost impossible to be bored when people they
tell you what they are scared of or who they desire.
Shyness is one of the most modest and most egocentric of
emotions. Modest because it's born out of an acute and touching
sense of our shortcomings and peculiarity; and egocentric because
it's based on an exaggeration of how different other people are.
Like the paranoid person, the shy one imagines that all eyes in the
room are in the end on him or her. The shy person needs to discover
how much they have in common with the rest of humanity.
So what can be done to help liberate us? We need to learn some
manners. History shows that conversations grow interesting and
sincere when people accept a little artificiality in the
proceedings. We need prescriptions and rules to get us to the
natural and raw parts of our characters. Consider the record of the
greatest conversation in the Western tradition, Plato's Symposium.
The evening is as minutely choreographed as a piece of theatre. A
group of Athenians take it in turns to deliver discourses on the
nature of love while eating a banquet. A close eye is kept on the
clock. People are asked to define their terms and avoid unnecessary
digressions. There is no mention of the weather. The guests know
they have come together to illuminate an intellectual concern and
their conversation therefore has a direction. There is a sense of
where the talk is going, the hosts are keen to give their guests
the greatest of dinner-party gifts: some ideas to take home with
It was to the Ancient Greeks that the French looked when they
began to hold their famous salons in 18th century Paris. Fed up
with the idle chatter of the court at Versailles (where the talk
centred relentlessly around who had shot what and in what forest),
they wanted to make their homes into the spiritual descendants of
Socrates' dining chamber. One of the greatest bluestockings of the
period, Sophie de Condorcet, wrote down a touching set of rules for
a successful evening of conversation. She believed that guests had
to arrive with a number of conversational topics and explore them
with the same rigour as a scholar in a library, except that rather
than consulting books, it was the other guests that were to provide
the insights. Examples of topics included: what are the duties of
children to their parents? What is the wisest way to approach one's
own death? Can governments make us good or only obedient?
The topics may not precisely fit the agenda of early
twenty-first century men and women, but the logic behind Sophie de
Condorcet's approach is still valid, namely that we need to plan a
little in order to have a good conversation. The academic Theodor
Zeldin tried - a few years back - to raise the arts of conversation
in our own times when he began a series of public meals in Oxford.
Groups of strangers came together and, under Zeldin's gentle but
firm direction, agreed to lay aside their inhibitions and explore
experiences, ideas, regrets and aspirations. Zeldin provided diners
with a specially-designed conversation menu that he thought would
help people get the most from talking to a stranger. It started by
getting diners to look at questions like: 'Which of my ambitions is
likely to remain unfulfilled?' or 'Is sex overrated?'
The questions sound surprising and even shocking. We'd almost
never dare to bring up such matters with a stranger. Instead, we'd
tiptoe delicately around neutral topics found in the media,
frightened of casing offence, while ignoring that most of us are in
the end looking for an exchange of vulnerable material. So afraid
are we of sounding odd, we instead too readily accept boredom. In
the process, we condemn an evening to sterility.
We should be more brave. An evening comes alive when we meet
people who seem to express our very own thoughts, but with a
clarity and psychological accuracy we could not match. We feel
grateful to these strangers for reminding us of who we are. Our
embarrassments, our sulks, our feelings of guilt, these phenomena
may be conveyed in a way that affords us with a sense of vivid
self-recognition. The dinner party companion has located words to
depict a situation we thought ourselves alone in feeling, and for a
few moments, we are like two lovers on an early date thrilled to
discover how much they share.
We should be more demanding of our social lives. Rather than
seeing a successful encounter as a rare gift, we should expect to
engineer one regularly. The history of conversation suggests that
it's when there are rules around that our spirit can best be set
free. We may be tempted to giggle at the artificiality of a
conversation menu, or the pretentiousness of dinner parties - and
yet we should welcome them for helping us get to the elusive,
spontaneous and sincere bits of ourselves.
Alain de Botton is a writer, presenter and entrepreneur. He is
founder of The School of Life and a supporter of Action
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