Talking Points

But what are the implications for social life, and for society itself, if we lose the basic ability to listen, to ponder, and to respond–the ability to converse? It was with those thoughts in mind that I welcomed’ the publication of Stephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, which promised to be an overview of the rise, decline, and imminent fall of thoughtful speech among civil, educated people.

It is surprising, and a bit sad, that anyone could compile so tedious a book on so fascinating a subject. Conversation is nothing less than “the feast of reason and the flow of soul,” as Alexander Pope wrote (in apparently the only 18th-century quotation on the subject not reprised in this volume. A more precise title for this book would have been, Things Lots of Other People Have Written About Conversation.)

Today, we find ourselves drowning in words–radio talk shows; television talk shows; magazine, television and radio interviews by and with the hosts of radio and television talk shows; robocalls from political candidates and their opponents; tape-looped commercials at the grocery store checkout line; spam emails; junk faxes; blogs, blogs about blogs, and blogs about blogs about blogs. Yet, amid this surfeit of words, we find ourselves starved for real conversation, for those ineffable moments when we connect with another to discover a heart open and a mind ablaze.

We long to learn more about conversation–what it is, what it once was, and what it should be. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t tell us any such thing. Mr. Miller merely presents us with an undigested agglomeration of facts and quotations, shying away from the historian’s necessary intellectual task of marshaling those facts into a compelling case for one side or the other. And it doesn’t help that he is a numbingly pedantic writer: “One cannot be a good conversationalist if one lacks a sense of humor,” Miller writes, in a proclamation that cries out for a gloss of hot pink highlighter. “Equally important is being a good listener.” Particularly annoying is his persistent habit of making a statement, then backing it up with a quotation that says precisely the same thing. “If we think someone finds us boring, we dislike that person. As La Rochefoucauld says: ‘We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those who find us boring.'”

But in books, as in real-life conversations, most of us are willing to forgive some defects in style when they’re counterbalanced by real substance. And that’s where this book really falls short.

The problem begins with Miller’s chosen definition of conversation, which is limited to talk without a clear immediate purpose, such as information gathering or financial gain–“that reciprocal interchange of Ideas, by which the Truth is examined,” as Henry Fielding put it. Miller also focuses his attention mostly on conversations amongst small- to medium-sized groups of people–18th-century coffeehouse habitus, or 21st-century dinner party guests. Most of his discussion then centers on quotations from people writing essays about those conversations, which is nothing at all like conversation itself.

Miller further confines the topic by ruling out the notion of meaningful conversation with those who hold beliefs that are deeply opposed to our own. “I would have no trouble continuing a conversation with someone who is deeply religious so long as he or she was not a zealot who believed in Biblical inerrancy, but I would find it hard to continue a conversation with someone who believed in astrology or thought Stalin was basically a good guy,” he states flatly. He notes his approval of a dinner party guest who “calmly” walked out when his hostess announced her opposition to all war, under all circumstances. Is there no value in offering a respectful ear to someone with whom we fundamentally disagree? Should we have no curiosity about the interior lives of those who have chosen radically different paths? My own life has been enriched by deep, thoughtful conversations with exactly those people Miller so blithely writes off–religious fundamentalists, political purists, even the odd astrologer. In listening to them explain their views, I was not converted. But I was led to consider my own thoughts and beliefs from a different perspective, and I believe I am a clearer thinker–perhaps even a better person–as a result.

By choosing such a restricted canvas, Mr. Miller overlooks the vast majority of our conversations, especially those that are the most important in our lives–the conversations between friends, between lovers, between family members. Obviously, most of those confidential conversations are lost to history. By their very nature, great conversations leave few literary footprints–no snappy one-liners or quotable epigrams. The best conversations are often fuzzy in recollection, as we look back not on words but on meaning, the aha! of a newly grasped idea, or that sweetest of emotional responses: “Oh, me too, me too!”

But a thoughtful search through letters, memoirs, and fiction might yield some important clues to the historic changes in what we choose to say to one another, and the topics on which we remain uncomfortably silent. Certainly, it seems as though we talk more than previous generations, thanks to cell phones, email, and a pervasive culture of confessional self-revelation. But the vast array of conversational self-help books suggests that we still have trouble spitting out what we mean, even to those we love. In talking more, are we saying less?

The book’s failure to grapple with that basic question stems, in part, from Miller’s obvious disengagement with contemporary life. He reports, with some surprise, that “According to several observers, book discussion clubs have become very popular in recent years,” and reveals that “Oprah’s guests often promote a new book.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that he gives only sketchy attention to the disturbing rise of virtual conversation–the disembodied, faceless, often voiceless communication of the electronic age. Theoretically, our electronics ought to promote conversation, allowing us to connect with far-flung friends and family as much as we please, as often as we like. But in reality, these connections leave us feeling stunted and dissatisfied. We miss the charm of a human voice ungarbled by patchy cell coverage or ambient traffic noise. We try desperately to compress the myriad cues of facial expression–a half-smile, a raised eyebrow, a flicker of distress, a sparkle of suppressed hilarity–into the flat generics of emoticons.

Even those who have never known a world without cell phones or emails find themselves increasingly frustrated by their limitations. A young friend of mine who is vainly attempting to maintain a long-distance relationship via low-cost instant messaging offered this example:

Me: soo how was ur day
Other Person: don’t act like you HAVE to ask me about my day!!!
Me: no, I didn’t mean it like that, I was being sincere!!
OP: well I can tell now that you were angry to begin with
Me: what? I’m not angry at all….
OP: … well then what are you?
Me: wait–what?
OP: you don’t understand me!
Me: I think this form of communication is making it impossible, I’m going to call you write now.
OP: you never, ever write me.
Me: (gahhh!)

Despite all his book’s faults, however, Miller does offer some real consolation to those of us who fear that conversation is a declining art by dropping so many quotes from writers of previous eras who felt exactly as we do today. “Most people are so infatuated with themselves that they overlook other people’s pleasures; and, in order to show themselves to be subtle, intuitive, and wise, they will advise, and correct, and argue, and contradict vigorously, not agreeing with anything except their own opinions,” Giovanni Della Casa wrote in 1558. Five centuries later, Rebecca West tartly agreed: “There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”

I wish Conversation: A History of A Declining Art had tackled those doomsayers head-on, by offering evidence that true conversation exists, and persists. Certainly, great conversation is not–cannot–be an everyday experience. Real conversation is a high-wire act without a net, carrying the emotional risk that we will say something we don’t mean–or worse, something we mean deeply, but did not intend to say.

But those rare and evanescent conversations are the DNA of human relationships, and thus of society. For that reason, I hope that other, better authors will tackle the ultimate questions that this book leaves unanswered: What is conversation? What should it be? What does conversation mean to politics, to government, and to civil society as a whole? And what, God help us, would we do without it?

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation