Can we talk?

Put down that BlackBerry! Author Catherine Blyth chats about the joys of good old-fashioned conversation.

Published January 16, 2009 11:10AM (EST)

If walking into a party full of strangers makes you long for the comforts of your couch and Facebook, British journalist Catherine Blyth would love to have a chat with you.

Amid the many ways we now have for staying in touch -- from texting to blogging to e-mailing to social networking -- Blyth makes a spirited pitch for old-fashioned talk. Her new book, "The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure," is a breezy field guide to chat, enumerating its many practitioners, pleasures and pitfalls.

While offering plenty of practical advice, Blyth has the most fun wickedly enumerating conversational missteps, such as the complaint that is really a veiled boast, as in, I'm just so busy with my projects/babies/holidays/mountain biking. She delights in creating a typology of various types of bores, who kill conversation with their quirks. For instance, there's "the apologist" whose habit of frequent public self-flagellation compels others to reassure and praise her constantly. (So sorry she's only serving truffled unicorn tonight. Tragically, she burned the phoenix she had planned!)

Blyth has enthusiasm for many of the most maligned forms of discourse, from small talk to gossip to shop talk. But it is enthusiasm itself that she identifies as a conversationalist's greatest asset -- and not just zeal for the sound of your own voice.

Salon spoke with Blyth by phone from her home in London, where she made talking about talking seem easy.

It's often said that we live in the communication age, but you argue that we're really not having enough conversations. How can both things be true?

For all of the amazing, proliferating ways that we have to be in touch, face-to-face conversation is being pushed to the margins of our lives. And it has for thousands of years been the core of human interaction, and it's very good at what it's designed to do.

There's a whole lot to be said about the pleasures of a wired-up world, but there is a lot of difference between being in touch and having an interaction. If anything, I think that with too much communicating via machines, people end up hiding behind screens.

Let's start with the simplest kind of conversation. You want to bring back the convention of saying "hello" and "goodbye" to pretty much everyone whom we interact with on a daily basis, such as the grocery store clerk. Why do you think these little niceties are important?

It's all about the connections that stitch the day together. If you live in a city, like me, you'll know that there can be quite a lot of friction in your day. If you just humanize these encounters, if you meet somebody's eye, if they feel you listening to them, instantly it's going to boost your mood and theirs.

If you just introduce these low-stakes but emotionally satisfying little transactions in your day, you're more armed and prepared for more difficult conversations.

What is important about small talk? The very name of it makes it seem puny. What is its function?

Some people liken it to grooming amongst apes. Even if you're not discussing a meaningful subject, just the act of interacting, reaching out to someone, connects you with your world. That matters on a purely emotional level.

If you want to be more mercenary about it, look at what Malcolm Gladwell says in his book "The Tipping Point" about how acquaintances widen our world. If you are open to these small encounters, the stranger you meet at a party is far more likely to know of a job you won't hear about otherwise, or a potential date. It's worth doing.

I was amused but not particularly surprised to find that a group of financial company directors rated by far the most challenging aspect of their job not counting up the numbers or fiddling with algorithms, but making small talk with their clients.

I understand the difficulty, but in business situations, small talk can be incredibly revealing. You can learn a lot about someone's character, personality and mood through the fringe moments in an encounter.

Do you think that most people mistake being a great talker for being a great conversationalist? What's the difference?

Talking is just one aspect of conversation. Aren't you sick of the people you meet who only seem to pause for breath because they're preparing their next stunning line, and they're not listening to you at all? Although the very idea of conversation as an art may seem slightly intimidating, it's not about spouting those pithy quips, like Oscar Wilde or Gore Vidal.

Those skills may make you eloquent, but if you want to be good at having the ability to see other people's points of view, being a good listener is much more valuable.

Monopolizing seems obviously like a bad idea, but there is this lesser-known conversational pitfall of just not contributing enough. Why is that so deadly?

It just seems incredibly lazy, doesn't it? The trouble with shyness is that it will come across as arrogance, and whatever the reasons for your stage fright, it is a form of arrogance to expect other people to dig you out and make all the effort. It's a social exchange, so you're just not playing your part.

We all have a sense of when another person is boring us, but how can we tell if we're boring another person?

The most obvious thing to do is to look at their face, if their eyes are roaming elsewhere. Or looking at their hands. If their glass is empty, and yours is still full, you've probably been monopolizing. If you've been talking longer than it takes to soft-boil an egg, then you've probably been talking too long.

Three minutes or so?

I think that's a good measure. Just remember, "conversation" comes from the Latin word for "turned about." Taking turns -- that's a very important part of it.

Imagine you are going to walk into a roomful of strangers.

A joyful moment we all relish, don't we?

What is the most important thing to remember at that moment, if you're intimidated about breaking the ice?

The first thing to remember is that I'm sure there are loads of other people in the same position as you. You can help yourself by coming armed with a few things you've thought about talking about first. If you have planned a few topics then you are in a less vulnerable position.

I would head for one of the fringe areas of the room, where groups of people conversing break and reform. If there is food or drink there, you don't need to stick your neck down the champagne bottle, but stand there and there is bound to be someone else by themselves getting food, and there's an opportunity to start talking right away. And also look for that other person with the smiling, hopeful face who looks like they're looking for someone else to talk to. They're your target.

Why is asking "What do you do?" a bad approach to starting a conversation?

I think that it sounds like you're sniffing someone's salary. It's a kind of status-sifting question, isn't it? Maybe people are more adverse to this in Britain than in America, but I still think that if you appear to be only interested in someone through their role, you're almost holding up a mask between you and them. You're meeting their public capacity rather than making connections.

If I'm at a party, I don't actually want to be reminded of my latest project. I'm there to have fun, so to be transported mentally back to my workplace puts people on edge a little bit, I think.

Also, if a key part of conversation is putting the other person at ease, you could be stepping in a hole. Maybe they just lost their job.

Exactly. You don't know what you're going to find out. I think it still sounds a bit like code for saying,"I'm only interested in you if you can help my career." It's a networking question. In certain environments, maybe that's ideal, but in most social encounters, it is like saying, "What's your religion?" You don't need to go there. And if people are passionate about their jobs you usually find out pretty quickly, don't you? Maybe more than you want to.

Laughter is very important in conversation, but you write that a shockingly small amount of it comes in response to things that are jokes, or even funny. What function does laughter play?

It's so encouraging to know that eight out of 10 laughs in any kind of conversation have nothing to do with humor, according to the men in white coats who have actually been eavesdropping on parties. They've found these figures to be true.

Laughter can function as a form of social punctuation. It can signal a break in conversation, it might be covering up an awkward topic. It might be to equalize the mood. There is no easier way to mend the hole that opens up when you've made a real faux pas than to laugh, because as soon as everyone else laughs with you, you return to an equal footing.

It's quite a mysterious thing. Consider how gelling a laugh is -- it ties in with that notion of conversation as largely being about grooming and cementing social bonds. Someone even described laughter as a kind of grunt and cackle handed down from our animal ancestors.

For me, you know when you're really clicking with someone when you laugh in sequence. I think it is part of the mysterious music of conversation.

One of the clichés of good conversational etiquette is that you should never interrupt, but you say that rule should be and is ignored. Why?

We do interrupt each other all the time. It's a bit disconcerting if there is no interruption, even if it is that small nod of the head, going "oh, really." Also, that mysterious experience when you've met someone for the first time and yet you feel like old friends, and your thoughts are running gaily together, and the topic seems to be like a quarry, and you're both hunting it down. When you're clicking with someone, part of that sensation is because your sentences are overlapping, and you're interrupting, and saying, "Oh there's another thing."

Supportive comments and overlaps and the kind of gentle interruptions can also steer a conversation out of trouble. If you want to stop someone ranting at you, you might say: "Oh, do you mean such and such?" Not only are you making sure that they know exactly what you're hearing them say, you're also slowing down the momentum, which in turn lowers the argumentative temperature.

Interruptions are particularly useful if you want to turn away from a boring topic to one that you prefer instead. If you're not giving the other person a signal that you'd rather talk about something else instead, then you've only got yourself to blame, haven't you?

Because you're not doing your part in the conversation. You're just expecting them to entertain you.

Because we do spend so much time watching things going on, or living out our social lives by checking the number of pokes and prods on Facebook, I think there is this more voyeuristic "sitting back and waiting to be served" attitude. It's more prevalent than it was when only kings and queens had the joy of their jesters and their favorites and everyone else was working slavishly to entertain them.

More and more of us expect to be entertained in a way that's not just bad morally and lazy but actually means that we have fewer tools to entertain ourselves. Our lives are poorer for it.

At the same time, haven't some of the taboos of conversation broken down? The old cliché used to be that we should avoid talking about sex, politics or religion, but hasn't that gone by the wayside? Do you think that's been good for conversation or not?

Any straight, strict list of things that you must never talk about is automatically wrong. I like breaking rules. God, it would be so bland if everything was so mutual that you never offered an opinion. Provocative topics -- the ones that tickle our taboos -- are also the ones that we really need to talk about, because they're controversial. We need to know where people stand.

No particular subject makes a bad or a good topic. The topic is always this unstable combination of attitude and fact. So a topic's viability for conversation depends on how much conversation it will inspire. If people aren't interested, then it's automatically bad, and if it turns into an excuse to attack your pet hobbyhorse, and ignore them, again it's bad. It's all about how much you can use topics to open up connections.

There is no law about it, there are just risks. I do think that money is a dodgy topic, because so often it seems to be code for, "I'm terribly insecure, so I'm going to tell you how rich I am." I don't think that's a great message to send out about yourself.

In these recessionary times, is it bad form to talk about losing your money, your job, your house? Or, conversely, to bring that up with someone else?

It can be tremendously bonding, can't it? A problem shared is a problem halved. If you are unable to talk about your problems then so many problems come as a result of that. Again, it's context.

Like, how well do you know the other people involved?

Yeah, and where are you? And what's the tone and the mood? Are you joking about your problems as a way to open them up?

If we're raising a troubling topic, we're almost certainly laughing as we do so. And that's not just because laughter opens trap doors in serious moods, but you're also giving the other person a get-out. They can interpret your bid for the topic as a serious one if they want to talk about it, and a not-so-serious one if they don't want to.

There are lots of reasons to treasure conversation all the more in recessionary times, not just to talk about your troubles. According to 400 scientists commissioned by something called the Foresight Foundation, who were asked what we can do to improve our well-being, there are five things we can do: to help, to be curious, to learn, to be active and to connect with our world.

To me, conversation serves all those purposes. This could be a really great time for conversation if we're lucky, if we don't just shut our doors and sit watching our TVs.

What is your take on gossip, or, as you call it, "the local news"? Is it much maligned? Should we just embrace it?

Gossip -- we do it all the time anyway. Who are we kidding? Gossip in one form or another takes up about two-thirds of most people's conversation, and it's essential, because if you don't gossip, if you're not up to speed with your world, you are disconnected, and you do feel rather detached and alienated, and you're more likely to make blunders.

Gossip has a bad name because people associate it with bitching and saying nasty things behind people's backs. Even bitching does serve a useful bonding purpose, because it arranges you side by side with the person you're bitching to, united in your opposition to the person you're bitching about, so it's quite fun and pleasurable.

And if you don't gossip and you don't say, "Oh my goodness, have you heard the latest about so-and-so," then you're much more likely to make those dreadful, irretrievable blunders. Like the lady I quote in my book who had been off the gossip mill, she'd been away for a while, and saw an old friend, who she had not seen for about six months, and she said,"Where's you're lovely husband?" And she went, "He's dead." If she'd just been a bit more gossipy, she would have known that.

Gossiping is essential. It's part of the stuff that stitches communities together. It's actually the glue for most small worlds, and it's a way of making your world feel particular to you.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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