CON­VER­SA­TION PIECE

The irony of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion age is that we are for­get­ting how to talk to each other, Cather­ine Blyth tells Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

SO­CIAL blun­ders, Cather­ine Blyth has made a few. Such as the time she felt sorry for a lone­some chap at a party. She bowled over to him and de­clared: ‘‘ We haven’t met.’’ ‘‘ No,’’ the loner re­torted. ‘‘ We’ve had lunch.’’ It turned out the ob­ject of Blyth’s pity was a lit­er­ary agent she’d once tried to court. ‘‘ So sorry,’’ stum­bled Blyth. ‘‘ It must be your new hair­cut.’’ ‘‘ I haven’t had my hair cut,’’ came the re­frig­er­ated re­sponse.

Blyth is the au­thor of a new book, The Art of Con­ver­sa­tion: How Talk­ing Im­proves Lives , and when I re­mind her of this faux pas ( which she ad­mit­ted to re­cently in a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle), she feigns in­dig­na­tion. ‘‘ That’s so mean!’’ she wails good-na­turedly. ‘‘ The point is, no­body’s per­fect. I am the last per­son to say I’d never make a blun­der.’’

Blyth, a book ed­i­tor and jour­nal­ist turned au­thor, is just as in­ter­ested in so­cial break­down as so­cial bloop­ers; in par­tic­u­lar, in the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing art of con­ver­sa­tion. Her book ex­plores an ap­par­ent para­dox: that the in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion ages have spawned a de­cline in con­ver­sa­tion, ‘‘ for thou­sands of years the core of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion’’.

With lap­tops, Black­Ber­rys and mo­bile phones car­ried around like ‘‘ vi­tal elec­tronic or­gans’’, tech­nol­ogy si­mul­ta­ne­ously brings us to­gether and keeps us apart, she ar­gues. It’s too easy to ig­nore how much of our time is eaten up by email­ing, watch­ing tele­vi­sion and send­ing text mes­sages, she says. Fac­tor in gam­ing and in­ter­net fix­a­tions, and the talk­back ra­dio and TV talk shows that dou­ble as pub­lic con­fes­sion­als, and it seems that for many peo­ple a cuppa and natter with a friend or neigh­bour has gone the way of fon­due par­ties and wa­terbeds.

‘‘ The irony of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion age is that we com­mu­ni­cate less mean­ing­fully,’’ writes Blyth, who has seen guests at a wed­ding text mes­sag­ing dur­ing the vows.

In a phone in­ter­view con­ducted from her Lon­don home, she adds: ‘‘ Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the av­er­age per­son prob­a­bly has a lot less con­ver­sa­tion in their lives than he or she did 20 years ago. There are many at­ten­tion eaters that are draw­ing us away from th­ese in­ter­ac­tions.’’

The au­thor, 34, whose English ac­cent is more pol­ished than posh, stresses she is a re­al­ist who en­joys watch­ing TV ( she was a late con­vert to the mo­bile phone). ‘‘ But there is sim­ply no sub­sti­tute for in­ter­ac­tion,’’ she in­sists.

Tuning out from each other and into tech­nol­ogy is a worry, she ar­gues, be­cause if we ‘‘ talk less, we un­der­stand each other less’’. She says it’s no ac­ci­dent that his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods when con­ver­sa­tion was revered, such as the En­light­en­ment, have been the most fruit­ful for in­tel­lec­tual thought, sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery and re­spect for in­di­vid­ual rights.

Blyth quotes con­tem­po­rary re­search that found the key pre­dic­tor of chil­dren’s ac­com­plish­ments later in life was the level of con­ver­sa­tion to which they were ex­posed when young. Un­til re­cently, she says, chil­dren ac­quired con­ver­sa­tional skills ‘‘ nat­u­rally around the din­ner ta­ble’’. But now, with longer work­ing hours and more moth­ers work­ing, fam­ily din­ners are a thing of the past in many house­holds. ‘‘ There is noth­ing in­evitable about ac­quir­ing con­ver­sa­tional skills and there is noth­ing in­evitable about th­ese things pass­ing down the gen­er­a­tions,’’ she warns.

In a sign of how we live in con­ver­sa­tion­ally chal­lenged times, the Lon­don-based School of Life, a new cul­tural en­ter­prise en­dorsed by philoso­pher Alain de Bot­ton, hosts meals in which strangers are given con­ver­sa­tion menus or guides. ‘‘ Ex­pect the sort of stim­u­lat­ing and heart-warm­ing con­ver­sa­tions we have all dreamed of hav­ing but so rarely do,’’ gushes the school’s web­site.

A sur­vey re­leased last year by the Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy found the av­er­age Aus­tralian spent one hour a day on a mo­bile phone. The sur­vey con­cluded that one in five mo­bile users were po­ten­tially ad­dicted to their phones and spent more time tex­ting than talk­ing. The sur­vey’s au­thor, QUT re­searcher Diana James, says as mo­bile phone us­age has in­creased, ‘‘ they’ve be­come a huge part of peo­ple’s so­cial lives . . . without their phones, peo­ple feel like they are out of the loop’’.

Ear­lier this year, a Bri­tish gov­ern­mentspon­sored re­port blamed the de­cline of fam­ily meals in part for un­planned teen preg­nan­cies. It seems lack of din­ner ta­ble con­ver­sa­tion con­trib­uted to par­ents’ fail­ure to talk frankly to their teenagers about the dan­gers of un­pro­tected or early sex.

Blyth is not alone in be­ing con­cerned about our so­ci­ety be­com­ing less con­ver­sant with, well, de­cent con­ver­sa­tion. In his book, Con­ver­sa­tion: A His­tory of a De­clin­ing Art , pub­lished in 2006, US es­say­ist Stephen Miller laments: ‘‘ Amer­i­cans have lit­tle or no in­ter­est in this art. There are far more books on im­prov­ing one’s sex life than on im­prov­ing one’s ‘ con­ver­sa­tion’ life.’’

Miller says tech­nol­ogy, so­ci­ety’s in­sis­tence on un­guarded forthright­ness on the one hand and a fear of seem­ing judg­men­tal on the other di­min­ish the qual­ity and quan­tity of everyday con­ver­sa­tion.

But other ex­perts deny tech­nol­ogy is a con­ver­sa­tion killer. David Crys­tal, one of the world’s best known lin­guists, ar­gues in his new book Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 that tex­ting has en­riched the English lan­guage and may help rather than hin­der chil­dren’s lit­er­acy.

Catharine Lumby, di­rec­tor of the Jour­nal­ism and Me­dia Re­search Cen­tre at the Uni­ver­sity of NSW, says while meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have di­ver­si­fied, this doesn’t mean peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate less mean­ing­fully: ‘‘ It is very easy and very com­mon for peo­ple to take a tech­no­log­i­cally de­ter­min­ist view; that is, a view that tech­nol­ogy has an in­cred­i­bly de­ter­min­ing in­flu­ence on so­ci­ety.’’

She says the com­mon be­lief that shar­ing a cof­fee and chat is real while chat­ting on­line is ar­ti­fi­cial is ‘‘ far too sim­plis­tic’’. Aca­demic re­search shows ‘‘ hu­mans are good at adapt­ing tech­nol­ogy to so­cial pur­poses’’.

Lumby ob­serves that de­bates about tech­nol­ogy tend to ro­man­ti­cise the past: ‘‘ Not many peo­ple have ever had the Os­car Wilde stan­dard of repar­tee hap­pen­ing at the din­ner ta­ble. If we go back to the early 20th cen­tury, peo­ple weren’t sit­ting around the ta­ble mak­ing ironic re­marks. They were work­ing 12 hours a day and rais­ing 10 chil­dren.’’

Still, some his­to­ri­ans be­lieve con­ver­sa­tion — at least among the mid­dle classes — reached its apex in 18th-cen­tury Eng­land, when en­tire towns were judged by vis­it­ing writ­ers ac­cord­ing to their con­ver­sa­tional prow­ess; when ladies and gen­tle­men kept a stash of quo­ta­tions, facts and bons mots to im­press vis­i­tors.

Writ­ers from Jonathan Swift to Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, Vir­ginia Woolf to Wilde wrote about or had a knack for clever, el­e­gant con­ver­sa­tion; for th­ese peo­ple, con­ver­sa­tion was a per­for­mance. Still, even dur­ing pe­ri­ods when ver­bal dex­ter­ity was a so­cial as­set, talk could be cheap. Nine­teenth-cen­tury nov­el­ist Ge­orge Eliot once wrote: ‘‘ Blessed is the man who, hav­ing noth­ing to say, ab­stains from giv­ing ev­i­dence of the fact.’’

Browse the web and you’ll find that to­day the art of con­ver­sa­tion has been co-opted largely for strate­gic ends: se­duc­ing busi­ness clients or help­ing bosses com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively with em­ploy­ees. This doesn’t sur­prise Shel­ley Gare, jour­nal­ist and au­thor of The Tri­umph of the Air­heads . Ac­cord­ing to Gare, the rise of man­age­ment the­ory means work­place man­agers are hooked on jar­gon and dic­tums and, as a re­sult, are poor com­mu­ni­ca­tors.

Gare also be­lieves the dumb­ing down of school cur­ricu­lums has killed the cu­rios­ity of many young adults. She has wit­nessed among gen­er­a­tion Y ‘‘ such a blank-faced re­ac­tion [ to dis­cus­sions out­side their own ex­pe­ri­ence] that some­times I want to lean over and smack them’’.

Gare be­lieves cul­tural dif­fer­ences also play a role in dif­fer­ing stan­dards of con­ver­sa­tion. While work­ing as a jour­nal­ist in Lon­don, she found it eas­ier than she does here to strike up con­ver­sa­tions with strangers at work func­tions. She puts this down to Aus­tralia be­ing smaller and more in­su­lar than Bri­tain. Then again, she knew it was time to leave Eng­land when she went to a din­ner party full of Oxbridge types telling jokes in Latin.

In our con­ver­sa­tion­ally de­nuded era, even those used to be­ing in the pub­lic spot­light can end up tongue-tied. For­mer Hush singer Keith Lamb was so ac­cus­tomed to fans and the me­dia pur­su­ing him, he had trou­ble ini­ti­at­ing everyday chat af­ter his 1970s band broke up. He and busi­ness part­ner Louise How­land de­vel­oped a game de­signed to get in­tro­verts talk­ing and ex­tro­verts lis­ten­ing. The game, TAOC ( The Art of Con­ver­sa­tion), fea­tures 300 con­ver­sa­tion starters, from ques­tions about driv­ing in­struc­tors to who your least likely part­ner might be.

It has sold thou­sands of copies in Aus­tralia, has been ex­ported over­seas and is be­ing used by schools, dat­ing and men­tal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ser­vices. How­land be­lieves the game is meet­ing a need be­cause ‘‘ while we are con­nected 24/ 7 with tex­ting and email, lis­ten­ing and con­ver­sa­tional skills have di­min­ished . . . The sad ev­i­dence is that many chil­dren, in­clud­ing bright chil­dren from ed­u­cated homes, are start­ing school with speech de­lays. This is be­lieved to be caused by less time speak­ing with and lis­ten­ing to oth­ers, and more time in front of screens.’’

( A New York speech pathol­o­gist told The New York Times re­cently that par­ents who used mo­bile phones or Black­Ber­rys ob­ses­sively while at home could re­tard their chil­dren’s lan­guage de­vel­op­ment.)

Re­leased on the cusp of the fes­tive sea­son, Blyth’s book of­fers tips on how to re­con­nect so­cially. ‘‘ I’m still looking for a less pissy word than con­nect­ing,’’ she says, mak­ing it clear she is no but­toned-up eti­quette queen. In­deed, for this au­thor the old adage about steer­ing clear of re­li­gion and pol­i­tics is old hat. ‘‘ Ques­tion­able sub­jects whet ap­petites,’’ she writes.

She con­sid­ers gos­sip an im­por­tant so­cial lu­bri­cant, pro­vided it isn’t about your hosts: ‘‘ Peo­ple are fright­ened of the word gos­sip be­cause it im­plies be­ing two-faced. But the vast ma­jor­ity of our con­ver­sa­tion is gos­sip in one form or an­other,’’ she tells Re­view.

Let­ting rip is usu­ally a loser’s game, she writes. ‘‘ While the right put-down is glo­ri­ous, the wrong one is sham­ing.’’

Her book of­fers exit strate­gies for when you’re trapped with a bore at a party or con­fer­ence, and coun­sels against bor­ing oth­ers. Blyth be­lieves the best con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists are also the best lis­ten­ers. ‘‘ To be bor­ing,’’ she con­tends, ‘‘ is be­yond bad man­ners.’’ The Art of Con­ver­sa­tion by Cather­ine Blyth ( John Mur­ray, $ 24.99) is out now.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygsman

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