EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his opinion on the lost art of conversation and what killed it.
THE CRITICS EMOTE! “Paul Sunstone? Conversation? The mind reels at the very thought of Paul Sunstone trying to have a conversation with anyone or anything other than a beige painted wall. The chav’s idea of a conversation is to inflict his interminable lectures on people until his audiences bleed out from boredom as if stabbed by it. The absolute best one might say about Sunstone and conversation is that both of them are dead today, only the latter has come back to us as a zombie. And a boring zombie at that!” — Merriweather Sterling, Blogs of the Day, “The Daily Burtie”, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, England, UK.
(About a 5 minute read)
I’m resigned to the fact the lost art of conversation will not be making a comeback anytime soon. This post is by no means a plea to restore it to our daily lives. And besides, it is not an easy art to become skilled at. Restoring it would face hurdles.
It’s just I would like to share some thoughts about what it was and what killed it.
I think if you made a list of lost arts today and then asked hundreds of strangers which one of them had been the most beneficial to humanity when it thrived, most of us today might say something along the lines of “critical thinking” or even “sex”. But I would say conversation, for as I see it, both critical thinking and sex are enhanced and enriched by conversation.
To me, there is only one Great Lost Art greater than conversation.
That’s the greatest of them all — the Art of Making an Art of Living Well. But I think that one is still alive, albeit on its sickbed. Conversation, on the other hand, is truly lost. At least, that’s how I see it.
So what happened?
Near as I can figure, there’s no better place to start than with Emily Post, an extraordinarily creative woman who authored five novels in addition to tens of dozens of articles, columns, and other works. She was — from the 1920s until her death in 1960 — the charming guide for millions of Americans to good manners. Especially newly arrived Americans — immigrants.
Post’s books about etiquette read like collections of short stories. She created a cast of characters — most of them quite satirically drawn — to illustrate American customs and manners.
Immigrants in particular relied on her “bible” to adapt to and socially thrive in America. But for everyone, Post was a great democratizer. She made it wholly possible for people who had been unfortunately raised with self-sabotaging manners to learn how to get along in any American social circle.
Post summed up her core take on etiquette thus:
“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.
“Nothing is less important than which fork you use. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”
Post was a total and complete proponent of conversation as an art form.
Mom had on her bookshelves about five or six early 1920s and 30s editions of Post’s famous work Etiquette. I read two of them growing up. It was all but a religious epiphany to read her on the art of conversation.
I was reading Post in the 60s when people told each other everyone would be better off if no one even suggested there might be a good or better way of doing something than to wholly rely on impulses in every last area of life. It was a difficult era for anyone who wanted advice on whether to fuel their car with gasoline or water, cheat on their partner or not, or use a condom or not. The answer that came back from nearly everyone was, “Just do your own thing.”
By then conversation was already dying, and everyone who had enough hindsight knew why. TV.
TV was being blamed for everything, but one of the few times when the blame was accurate was when TV was being blamed for destroying the art of conversation.
Say in 1968, you were to read a 1920s edition of Post on conversation. Much of it might seem familiar to you. “Don’t interrupt people.” “Take turns speaking.” “Don’t lecture, don’t drone on endlessly.” etc. Nothing to surprise you there.
Yet, then you would come to diner parties. All of a sudden, you would be in largely unheard of waters. First thing you might notice is how much work Post expected of people.
Whether you were the guest or the host or hostess, you were expected to put in some preparatory work before hand. Invited to the Warner’s for the Friday evening meal? Don’t forget to call Mrs. Warner to ask who will be seated next to you, then start thinking about the interesting and charming questions you’ll be asking them to get them talking. To top things off, pick a couple topics of your own and of course memorize some jokes or quotes you can use if you get the lucky chance to spice things with one or two of them.
The hosts — especially the woman — had a ton more responsibilities. Her biggest challenge was who to seat next to whom. Will Ted get along with Alice or Sarah best? Serving her guests with the opportunity for a good conversation was more important than serving them anything beyond basic, good food.
After all, if all you wanted was to eat, you could do as much staying home. You went to the Warner’s — not so much to eat — as to converse. In the 1920s, 30s, and perhaps beyond, society reporters for the newspapers routinely quoted what various guests had said at the parties of socially prominent hostesses.
“Mr. William Jackson quipped last Friday at the Henry Blaine’s that the mayor had given his speech to the Rotarians while under the influence, and in fact ‘had a lake of alcohol in his belly’ that night. To which Miss Alice Sanders, back visiting her mother from Bernard College, scandalously retorted that she herself might have a lake in her belly if she were ever forced to give a speech to the Rotarians. The kids these days!”
You can read so many things like that in the old newspapers of the day.
From what my mother told me, sometime during the 1950s, my father stated to her: “None of our friends can hold up their end of a conversation anymore. All anyone wants to do is repeat the plots and jokes of TV shows the night before. You can’t get them to budge an inch from it. ”
If there was any doubt in my mind of the power screens have to destroy conversation as an art form, my friend Brett laid those doubts to rest a few years ago when he pointed out how uncrowded coffee shops are today compared to 20 years ago. “People in the coffee shops just stare into their screens today. That’s if they go to the shops instead of just phoning or Skyping anyway.”
But if conversation is gone, are we missing it?
For some of us, I think the answer is “yes”. But perhaps for most of us, it’s “who cares?”
What do you think it is?