Tis the season for amateur sociology – if we want to share space with one another happily, that is. With parties and family get-togethers, tension and social gaffes lurk behind every pine swag. And so in honour of the holiday spirit – and the need to enjoy each other’s company, even if you have to pretend – I offer some observations about the art of conversation…
That’s the thing about pleasant conversation. It’s a dance of fancy footwork, a minefield of social explosive devices to be avoided, the exact opposite of what the popular culture of confession and narcissistic Facebook commentary suggests is important. A good conversationalist has a feel for nuance; an understanding of grace; an ability to make careful entrees and gentle exits. He is not obsessed with his own status updates. And he’s adept at skilled deflections.
To make for happy party dynamics, you must demure at times, remain silent when necessary, nod, listen, dare to be conventional and find refuse in a discussion about the weather.
Rarely do you need to say exactly how you feel, especially if it’s about Aunt Shirley’s disgraceful behaviour at the last family get-together.
In recent years, I’ve read various people suggesting that the art of good conversation is slowly dying, particularly among younger generations. Common targets for this include Facebook (like above), rougher political discourse, and a growing sense of incivility.
But, it seems to me that if you want people to be good at conversation, they have to be taught and they have to practice. This is true of any social norm or practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to finishing school or things like that but there should be commonly-found settings where good conversation can be found. Reading a tips column like this doesn’t help too much because it can’t prepare one for all the twists and turns a human-to-human conversation might take. Perhaps reading more Erving Goffman and other notable symbolic interactionists could help. Or perhaps keeping Mead’s “generalized other” in mind would help.
So who wants to take up this task?