The decline of conversation

Conversation is a large part of our lives, yet we seldom stop to evaluate it. Stephen Miller has examined its place in contemporary culture in a recent book and finds that our standards have fallen, despite the proliferation of chatter on radio and television. In this exclusive interview, MercatorNet queried him about Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (Yale University Press, 2006, ISBN 0300110308). 

MercatorNet: The crux of your book is that conversation is a declining art. How can that be so? People seem to be talking as much as ever.

Stephen Miller: In my book I distinguish face-to-face conversation, which I consider the ideal form of conversation, from virtual conversation (either by phone, email, instant messaging, or text-messaging). It seems to me that face-to-face conversation is decreasing. I have no conversation meter to compare face-to-face conversation now with face-to-face conversation three decades ago, but in the past two years several studies have argued that people, especially young people, are spending an increasing amount of time in the virtual world. It would be wrong to say that conversation cannot take place in the virtual world, but it is an inferior form of conversation, since it lacks the gestures and nuances of face-to-face conversation. (Phone conversation is better than email conversation.)

In my book I say that raillery -- roughly speaking, good-humoured disagreement -- is an important part of conversation. You can’t do raillery in the virtual world. I’m not against email or other forms of virtual conversation. I have corresponded with numerous people over email. But I have almost lost friendships because of misunderstood comments that I’ve made in emails, and many people have told me that they have had similar blow-ups over email remarks. Of course, email correspondence with friends and family members is better than no correspondence at all.

MercatorNet: You locate conversation somewhere between angry self-expression and non-judgmental platitudes. Are these the main vices of modern conversation?

Miller: They are. As I argue in my book, angry self-expression is a legacy of the counterculture that flourished in the Sixties. The counterculture prized authenticity. One was supposed to express oneself -- or, to use the Sixties expression, let it all hang out. Being authentic was supposedly good for the psyche. But Americans have always been suspicious of conversation. Male Americans -- from John Adams to Clint Eastwood -- have implied that real men are blunt and plain-spoken. Non-judgementalism is also a legacy of the Sixties. A number of writers argued that all ideas are autobiographical, so your opinion is something you share with someone. Or, as the Sixties cliché would have it: “This is where I’m coming from.” It would be rude to disagree with someone who shares his or her opinion with you. There is a third vice that is commonplace in modern conversation -- distraction. Being a good listener has always been difficult because most people want to talk rather than listen, but the growth of cell phones, beepers, and iPods has made listening even more difficult. Good conversation requires time as well as the absence of ringing or beeping devices.

MercatorNet: Was there a “golden age” of conversation, at least in the English-speaking world?

Miller: Yes, eighteenth-century Britain. How do I know that conversation was so good in eighteenth-century Britain? I don’t really know, since we have no record of people’s conversations -- except for Boswell’s account of the conversations Johnson had in the Life of Johnson. But I would argue that eighteenth-century Britain was a golden age of conversation because there were so many venues for conversation. In London there may have been as many as 1000 coffee houses where conversation flourished; there also were several hundred clubs that mainly were devoted to conversation. Moreover, it is clear that many people were interested in the art of conversation, since there were at least 40 pamphlets published on the subject. Finally, many of the leading writers of the age wrote about conversation -- among them Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, Henry Fielding, David Hume, and Samuel Johnson. Defoe wrote a travel book in which he rated the conversation of different cities and towns in Britain, just as today we rate the quality of the restaurants in a city.

MercatorNet: Why, then, did the English acquire a reputation for taciturnity and stultifying politeness?

Miller: This is a tough question to answer. At the turn of the 18th century people went to London coffeehouses to have conversations about a wide variety of subjects: politics, business, literature. At the turn of the 19th century people went to London coffeehouses to read the newspaper in silence. Why the change? My hunch is that the art of conversation was increasingly associated with France, and in the 1790s Englishmen were becoming more nationalistic -- and therefore more interested in being different from the French. Since the French were talkative, they would be taciturn. The chattering Frenchman was regarded as unmanly, unreliable, and emotional. The taciturn Englishman (not Scotsman) was level-headed and dependable.

MercatorNet: How about the state of American conversation. You complain that Americans take an instrumental view. What do you mean by that?

Miller: In my book I argue that conversation is not for a purpose -- that it is an end in itself and that we engage in it for the pleasure it gives us. (David Hume and the modern British philosopher Michael Oakeshott take the same view.) We like to go out with friends because we enjoy having a conversation with them. We don’t seek them out to further our career or to get advice (though we may do these things occasionally). Perhaps because of America’s Puritan heritage, many Americans are impatient with conversation; they prefer to go to lectures where they are given advice, edified, inspired, etc. It’s extraordinary that people will pay to hear a celebrity give a boring fifty minute talk.

A number of 19th century visitors to the US complained that American men think that all conversation is a prelude to a business deal. Dale Carnegie’s enormously influential How to Win Friends and Influence People, which remains a best seller seven decades after it was published, is not about making friends; it is about influencing people. Carnegie takes an instrumental view of conversation. To be sure, many Americans have friends, and in any American city on a Friday night the bars are filled with young people who are having conversations, but a recent study has argued that loneliness has greatly increased in the US.

MercatorNet: If advertisers are luring customers with slogans like “your iPod is your new best friend,” what is the future of conversation for today’s youth?

Miller: It is too easy for me -- I am in my sixties -- to moan about today’s youth, so I am wary of being too pessimistic about the future of conversation. Nevertheless, a number of studies -- I seem to like that phrase! -- have argued that teenage Americans spend roughly seven hours a day in the virtual world. Virtual conversation is less risky than face-to-face conversation. You can make up your identity; you can simply cut off the exchange if it is not going well. I worry that shy people will increasingly resort to virtual conversation.

On a radio talk show a few months ago, a caller said that he had made many friends through email and chat groups. When the host of the show asked him if he had friends where he lived, the caller said that he had trouble getting along with people in face-to-face encounters. The virtual world is fine in moderation. What is disturbing is not that it exists, but the amount of time young people spend in it.

MercatorNet: Where do people learn how to converse in the deeply satisfying way that you praise in your book? At school? At home, in their families? Watching TV?

Miller: People learn to converse by spending time with other people -- especially when engaging in any form of recreation, from playing sports to playing cards. When I was young almost all boys played sports, but nowadays it seems that only those who are especially gifted athletes play sports. Casual sports promote the kind of good-humoured banter that is essential for conversation. Ipods undermine conversation, since they rule out chance conversational encounters. I look out my window in the morning and see five or six teenagers waiting for the school bus -- each wearing an iPod. There is no casual conversation. They are cocooned in the virtual world.

MercatorNet: People spend lots of time watching surrogate conversation on talk shows like Oprah and Dr Phil -- are they good role models?

Miller: I don’t want to attack television or radio talk shows. (I’ve been on many radio talk shows.) But these shows offer what I call ersatz conversation. They are not substitutes for real conversation. In my book I quote a woman who admitted that she preferred ersatz conversation on talk shows to real conversation because in her experience real conversations usually end in an argument. Are an increasing number of people afraid of face-to-face conversation because they think good-humoured disagreement is impossible? I don’t know. I am not totally pessimistic. My book speaks of a decline in conversation, not the end of conversation. I argue that the forces nourishing conversation are weaker than the forces sapping conversation. But a number of reviewers have strongly disagreed with me. My hope is that my book will make more people interested in the art of conversation.

MercatorNet: Public discourse nowadays seems to be Red Americans shouting at Blue Americans. Is it possible to have a civilised, courteous conversation between men and women of different views?

Miller: If you mean having a conversation where different political views are expressed, the answer is: No. One reason why a civilised conversation about politics is difficult is that people live in what I call “anger communities.” They only read things or hear things that stoke their political anger. When a political subject comes up, people often change character: their voices become tense, shrill. I am amazed how angry people get about politics. But it was always difficult to have political conversations. Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke greatly respected each other, but they always avoided talking about politics because they knew that they strongly disagreed about most political questions. (Burke writes Boswell: “I dined with your friend Dr Johnson on Saturday….We had a very good day, as we had not a sentence, word, syllable, Letter, comma, or tittle, of any of the Elements that make politicks.”)

I tend to avoid political discussions with people I’ve just met, but I have a bunch of friends -- people I play tennis with -- who have a wide variety of political views, and we discuss politics in a good-humoured manner. Does anyone convince anyone to change his views? Probably not, but we enjoy airing our differences. If people were not so positive that they were right, it would help conversation. It would also help if people didn’t resort to simplistic labels. I don’t know if I am a Red American or a Blue American. On some issues I go in the Red direction, on others I go in the Blue.

Stephen Miller is a freelance writer and a contributing editor to The Wilson Quarterly. His essays on leading 18th century writers have appeared in many magazines, including the Times Literary Supplement, Partisan Review, and Sewanee Review.


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