The lost art of conversation

Recently while I was listening to ABC Radio National, I heard a snippet from an interview with a linguist who was lamenting the effect of modern technology on conversation.*  “The mouth and the ears,” she said, “are increasingly being replaced by the eyes and the fingers as tools of communication.”  Where, before, we needed to listen to people and respond to them verbally, now we read what they email/FB/tweet us and respond by emailing/FB-ing/tweeting back with our fingers.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, and for someone like me who loves language and rhetoric and the power of words so much, a worrying one, too.  While I’m all for the internet and really love its educational/information-giving effect on the whole of the human race (or on whomever can afford a computer and an internet connection), a big part of me joins the linguist on the radio in lamenting the change in human communication that it represents.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, being literate was a sign of quasi-nobility; a skill which separated the learned man from the villager, and garnered respect for whomever came to be known as a “man of letters”.  These days, when literacy and numeracy are pretty much taken for granted all over the developed world, I wonder why being a “person of words” – that is, spoken words – doesn’t carry the same weight.  Why don’t we study rhetoric anymore, like the Ancient Greeks used to?  And why don’t we organise salons and literature readings anymore?

How often has it happened to you that you’ve become, for example, Facebook friends with someone, and have had lovely, long, interesting interactions with them online, only to find that they barely open their mouths when you see them in real life?  Or how often have you been at a party and found yourself stumped for conversation when talking with another attendee, or trying, trying, trying to keep a conversation going with someone you just met, to no avail?  It’s such a disappointing, frustrating feeling.  You feel paralysed, or tongue-tied, or just annoyed, and you can’t wait to escape the situation.  (At least, that’s how I’ve felt.)  On the other hand, how good has it felt when you finally strike GOLD with someone, and talk and talk for hours without even thinking about it?

Sure, sometimes it’s luck; sometimes it’s just a matter of chance that you really connect with someone conversationally.  But often (I posit), good conversation is due to one or the other person being a good conversationalist.  Now, whether it comes naturally to the person or it’s a worked-at skill, the art of conversation is something that is so valuable, that I really wonder why we don’t put more store into learning how to do it better.

When I was growing up, I seemed to hear about people taking ToastMasters courses much more often than I do these days.  People wanted to be better communicators and spent their time and money to get there.  Why don’t we do it anymore?  Is the internet really replacing oral communication?  The same thing goes for lawyers.  Lawyers were for centuries known for their quick-thinking, quick-tongued ways – they could cover their tracks (for want of avoiding the word “lie”) in as long as it took to open their mouths, and their performances in front of judges almost transformed courtrooms into theatres.  Now when I think of lawyers, I think of shut-into-their-offices solicitors and bookworm academics who routinely make students fall asleep in lectures.  And it doesn’t feel like anyone’s trying to change it back.  In my five years at law school, only three law courses (out of the 16 or so I’ve completed) have included oral assessment, and even there, one wasn’t graded and another was completely optional.

Basically what I’m saying is, why aren’t we all working on our conversation skills more?  We should be.  ‘Cause it’s worth it.  Everyone loves to listen to a good story but no one wants to tell one.  So this is what I’m proposing (emphasising that I myself need to do this – I’m no Martin Luther King Jr myself): if you find it hard to talk to people in social situations, observe yourself, observe those whose chatting skills you admire, and implement change.  If you’re terrified of public speaking, practice with friends, take a ToastMasters course if you want to get amazing at it, or imagine that all the porkers out in the crowd are naked and get on with it.  And finally, have some fun with it!  We all love a good chin-wag, so we just need to equip yourself with the skills, hit our next social gathering, and then just party, and BS, and party, and BS, and party, and BS!


And now to give my fingers a rest and start using my mouth again…….. this time for dinner… ehhehehehheheh

xo, Dunja

* Unfortunately I didn’t catch the linguist’s name, and still don’t know it despite spending a good half-hour searching for the interview online…  Oh well.



  1. Well, for a start, I’d content that conversationalist skills and public speaking skills are very different, and don’t necessarily manifest in the same people. Secondly, it’s difficult to know what you want from a good conversationalist. Often the best way to make the person you are talking to enjoy the conversation is simply to let them talk a lot about the things they wish to – there’s in fact an emotional kickback from sharing initimate information about yourself they reported recently in New Scientist. For content, or actually exploring ideas, text has a lot of advantages, especially text when you both have access to google….

    • Hi Trish, and thanks for commenting! You make a good point – chatting at a party and giving a presentation in a work environment are very different situations and can’t really be compared. BUT, my point is, really, that oral communication *in general* seems to be losing its quality (not to mention frequency). In fact, I wonder whether most people KNOW that “the best way to make the person you are talking to enjoy the conversation is to let them talk about the things they wish to”, as you rightly pointed out. I’ve been caught in horribly one-sided conversations SO MUCH before that I really wonder whether people are aware of it at all. Maybe it’s hard to teach those things – it’s a matter of upbringing, I reckon – but if we all got together more often and just chatted, I’m sure it’d get better.

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