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