Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Conversation is second only to sex, a lot less hassle, and it really matters."

So says author Catherine Blyth in her new book, The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure. I spent the morning reading this cute little book and came away with some interesting information about why modern life is bad for conversation. Despite saying she doesn't hate technology, the author doesn't seem happy with it, stating:

Compared to face-to-face, Internet communication is two dimensional....As distractions multiply, fewer receive our full attention, and nuances are neglected. We don't look at the man selling us coffee, never mind shoot the breeze; we're too busy fiddling with our iPod. I've witnessed wedding guests with more qualifications than they have chromosomes text-messaging during the vows.

Developments, yes, but progress? ...The nuances are no less valuable to us than they were to our forefathers, nor are the joys. Abandon them, and we miss out.


In some ways, I agree--that to miss out on intimate conversations with actual people is not a good thing and can lead to feelings of isolation and despair for some. But small talk is not for everyone and sometimes it can lead an introvert to feel uneasy, bored or just alienated. However, Blyth says it's important to overcome shyness and gives tips such "the more engaged we are, the less nervous we feel" to those of us with little aptitude for small talk.

Overall, the book is quite good at teaching how to engage in good conversation--from a romantic talk with a partner (in a chapter on pillow talk) to how to wage a word war with those who insult you. It's a good read.

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31 Comments:

Blogger Joe said...

I can carry on an email conversation with my parents and three of my siblings 2000 miles away. I can IM my wife and kids from work where I can take my time if I'm busy with something else. I can have a technical or light-hearted conversation with someone from Jordan, Hong Kong, Australia and California. I can join other people on a forum run by someone in Tennessee discussing a book about how rotten technology is.

1:50 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Helen said...

Joe,

Your last line is funny! I agree--that the internet makes it easier to carry on conversation with others that you normally would not get to talk with as much or at all.

1:58 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger NJArtist said...

Intercourse is Intercourse. Heh.

Being able to perform well the verbal form of intercourse with a woman gets a man labeled as a nice guy.

2:31 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Mia Zagora said...

I don't know where she comes from, but around here the guy who sells you coffee, or the girl that shoves your sack of burgers out the drive-thru window, or the lady that runs the register at Wally World don't have time for chit-chat.

They have timers on all the fast food drive-thru's now, so these people have to get you gone so the timer will stop. The cashiers at Wal-Mart and other markets have timers built in to their registers that count how long it takes them to check out each person. Everybody's on a clock.

2:40 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Larry J said...

However, Blyth says it's important to overcome shyness and gives tips such "the more engaged we are, the less nervous we feel" to those of us with little aptitude for small talk.

I don't know, but it seems to me that telling someone to get over shyness is like telling someone to get over being short. For many people, shyness is deep seated and paralyzing.

3:12 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...

You can't get over being short but there are many ways to take steps to be more communicative and be more open to meeting new people.

3:17 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger David said...

See G K Chesterton on the clique and the clan. Clearly, modern communications technology enables the clique at the expense of the clan, which has both positive and negative aspects.

3:31 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger vivictius said...

Actually Cham,

http://www.shortsupport.org/Misc/faq.html#leg1

4:05 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Jason said...

Does she address what you should do when you simply run out of things to say?

All too often my attempts at conversation sound more like interrogations, with me asking questions and the other person giving answers, and nothing more. Gets boring very fast.

6:44 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Peregrine John said...

I would hope so, Jason. The basics of conversation are essentially the techniques of getting other people to talk for more than a sentence or two. Such a book had best include that kind of instruction, I think.

Artist, it's all in the application.

Now guys, obviously you can't engage everyone in conversation. If I tried to exchange more than a wave and friendly Hello with the garbage man, he'd think me an idiot; and if I succeeded I may well have caused him some trouble. But that's not the way everything is, and to suggest so is to build a straw man.

6:53 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Dr, Ellen said...

I'm not good at separating one voice from many. It's easy to have a conversation with one other, possible with two others, and extremely hard with more than that. Any general theory of the value of conversation that doesn't deal with that kind of problem isn't worth much.

7:17 PM, February 18, 2009  
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7:58 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger John Markley said...

"But small talk is not for everyone and sometimes it can lead an introvert to feel uneasy, bored or just alienated."

THANK YOU for pointing this out, because it's something that is almost invariably ignored in discussions of the effects of technology on socializing, or social interactions generally. There's a general expectation that everyone is or ought to be an extrovert who delights in constant face-to-face interaction with all and sundry. (Not surprising; I'd expect a disproportionate number of people working in media and other opinion-molding fields to be extroverts.) The idea that some people don't like to "shoot the breeze" with strangers just never occurs to a lot of people who write on the subject.

8:06 PM, February 18, 2009  
Blogger Mike Wilson said...

If you want to see something truly frightening, go to a bar in a major city. (I only say 'in a major city' because that's the limit of my experience.)

Of course, because I'm leaving a comment on this post you know what I'm going to say. It's full of people staring down at LCDs, thumbs twitching furiously.

Now, I'm a technologist. I've been writing software for 32 of my 39 years. I have every bloody gadget that hits the streets; boxes full of kindles, cell phones, several iPods, macs, old pcs, etc.

And what connectivity has done for "getting people to talk who otherwise wouldn't" is nothing short of historic.

But people are so well connected that they're just not connecting. Starbucks', bars, on the street. You can't have a normal conversation any more without someone rudely pulling out a vibrating gadget and lapsing into an otherworldly seizure for minutes at a time.

It frightens me. People don't talk and you can watch people you know over time cycle inward as it's easier and easier for them to relate via a text only medium.

It's positively dehumanizing.

Here's a cute anecdotal data point: When's the last time you heard someone out in the world humming, whistling, or singing to themselves? Chances are, most of those people now have headphones in.

I spend a lot of time "out" intentionally engaging people in conversation, to frequently delightful effect. But too often the reaction is one of alarm and suspicion that I might strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Is this where I'd say "get off my lawn!"? :p

1:54 AM, February 19, 2009  
Blogger Mike Wilson said...

Larry J: Re: "getting over shyness" Speaking from my own personal experience, I think most of the time it can be done. However, the nature of shyness doesn't tend to grant one the motivation required to evolve through it ;)

1:56 AM, February 19, 2009  
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6:16 AM, February 19, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...

Mike Wilson:

It sort of depends on where you are. When I see younger people, I see a lot of gadgets being bandied about. I was at a restaurant recently near a table of teen girls with bookbags, so I assumed they were in high school. As they ate their food, 2 were on cell phones talking to other people and the 3rd was texting. Maybe they had said all they had to say to each other already.

I am noticing a change among older adults. The minute an event starts I am witnessing people making an effort to turn the cell phones and gadgetry off so they can give everyone their full attention. Not everyone is doing this but enough. My attitude now is that if you take a phone call while I am in the middle of a conversation with you, then I'm done....with you.

I engage people in conversation all the time. I don't know where you live but people in my area seem to be chatty cathy's these days.

Oh, there is a side benefit to all this technology. I have long hair so you can't see my ears. Now I can walk down the street talking all I want to myself. Nobody knows that I don't have a headset in my ear. Try it, you might like it.

8:37 AM, February 19, 2009  
Blogger Sissy Willis said...

"Compared to face-to-face, Internet communication is two dimensional ... As distractions multiply, fewer receive our full attention, and nuances are neglected."

And in the process we lose touch with clues of potential danger in our physical and psychological environments. As I blogged a couple of years back re "what's wrong with the politically correct rhetoric of the left, both here and in the larger world of elite 'thinkers' worldwide":

"Like zoo-born animals that have never had to deal with the vicissitudes of their natural predators and prey 'out there,' these reality-challenged folk neither recognize their mortal enemies nor have the skills to fight for their own survival."

9:24 AM, February 19, 2009  
Blogger Mike Wilson said...

I'm in NYC; and while we're nicer than our reputation ;) people are still inclined to be particularly suspicious of being "randomly" engaged.

...if you take a phone call while I am in the middle of a conversation with you, then I'm done....with you.

Couldn't agree more.

Encouraging signs ;)

9:28 AM, February 19, 2009  
Blogger DADvocate said...

...if you take a phone call while I am in the middle of a conversation with you, then I'm done....with you.

Same here.

Kids want to communicate all the time. One day eating at a restaurant with my kids I thought my son was saying a little prayer then I realized he was texting someone while holding his cellphone in his lap.

I simply can't understand why so many adults need to be in constant conversation with someone else. Is being alone with yourself and you thoughts that bad for some people? I'm quite extroverted but I enjoy having solitude each day which I get driving to work and back (an hour each way).

BTW - I got new cellphone service last October, 700 minutes a month and unlimited texting for my daughter. The first month I had 691 minutes unused.

9:33 AM, February 19, 2009  
Blogger David said...

There is something about video screens that captivates attention. A flight instructor who was teaching in new Cessnas, with large display screens for GPS and other information, told me that he had a real problem getting students to focus their attention outside the cockpit (even during landing approach) rather than on the screen.

10:10 AM, February 19, 2009  
Blogger I R A Darth Aggie said...

I don't know, but it seems to me that telling someone to get over shyness is like telling someone to get over being short. For many people, shyness is deep seated and paralyzing.

That's a really bad analogy. I can't do anything to get taller. I can, however, learn how to make small talk.

10:24 AM, February 20, 2009  
Blogger Bruce said...

I don't know, but it seems to me that telling someone to get over shyness is like telling someone to get over being short. For many people, shyness is deep seated and paralyzing.

That's a really bad analogy. I can't do anything to get taller. I can, however, learn how to make small talk.


Well, sure, you can learn, but will it ever feel natural and without stress? Will you feel like you are being yourself, or will you feel like you are simply faking not being shy just to satisfy people who are extroverts?

I don't think that introverts/shy people get the respect that they should. Its assumed that extrovert=good.

A lot of advice given to introverts is similar to telling short people to walk around on 12 inch stilts. Sure, it'll make you seem more like the mainstream, but is it really still you?

7:12 PM, February 20, 2009  
Blogger br549 said...

The only need for conversation with a woman is to tell her how you want your steak cooked.

7:02 AM, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Joe said...

Bruce brings up an interesting point. Studies have found that introverts who act as extroverts experience massive stress, even if they are good at it. Many report feeling like frauds. I've been there, done that (in addition to stress, my response in a specific situation was anger, not feeling like a fraud. I began to lash out and became apathetic about life--I wasn't suicidal, but didn't care.)

3:58 PM, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...

I walk into clothing stores and see some beautiful bright colored clothing. I am drawn to clothing with brocade, embroidery and applique. I admire the pieces and touch the material. Then I put them back on the rack. You see, if I wore such clothing in my area, I would look more like a circus clown than the person who I want to be perceived. So I choose to tone it down, I look well tailored but not a freak.

I bet there are people out there that would love to run from a room full of people, but they don't. They make an effort to make polite conversation and participate as a part of a group. They know it is hard for them, but they make the effort. Those that do overcome their shyness get rewarded with a wider network and more friends.

Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do to get whatever results you desire. That's life.

7:38 PM, February 21, 2009  
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