Talking about conversation

I’m having a funny old summer. It feels like everything is shifting around me. There’s not much more worth saying about that, but it provides a vague picture of the unstable backdrop behind the reading that I’ve been doing to prepare for the new academic year and the start of the thesis stage of my doctorate.

ConversationOne of the first books I purchased this summer was Theodore Zeldin’s ‘Conversation’, a tiny, arty book that is actually the transcript of six radio talks. Several points Zeldin makes stick in my mind.

The first is that conversation needs to be cultivated, and one of the best ways to do that is to talking about conversation. As love flourishes when two people talk about love and what they love about each other (a kind of appreciative enquiry I guess), so conversation flourishes when we talk about why we converse and how we do it.

I just tried it tonight, over a very tasty home-cooked steak. I’d been thinking about Zeldin, and also a blog exchange my tutor David had had with someone else about agreeing to disagree (i.e. how it’s basically a cop-out that closes down a conversation just as it starts to get interesting/meaningful/productive), and asked Brendan what he thought was the point in conversation. Now, Brendan is by his own admission quite a confrontational person, and for him conversation is 96% is about trying to bring the other person around to his way of thinking, and maybe a little – sometimes – about learning something new. Not from the other person of course (because they’re always wrong), but from the process of conversing and the way it promotes the forging of new connections and the saying of things one has never thought before.

This conversation starter took us to and through so many different places and events and instances, and all in all we had an amazing evening. It’s not unknown for us to have really good conversations, but this might have been one of the best; it was a good, mindful conversation. We didn’t offend each other at any point, nor did we talk over or interrupt each other (in fact at one point Brendan started to interrupt and then stopped and apologised). The conversation was lively and flowing; at times hilarious, at times highly constructive.

So, from this single piece of anecdotal evidence, it looks like Zeldin knows what he’s talking about when it comes to conversation. Perhaps the Conversations I’m envisaging for my thesis project might arise from a very simple basis as this. A key difference is that Brendan and I know each other very well and have many shared experiences and frames of reference, and I wonder whether the topic would work as well with a stranger, and how it would be different.

Another interesting point I took away from Zeldin’s book was about differences in the way different cultures think about conversation. The study on what children of different cultures argue about sounded like an incredible piece of work that I’d really like to read. The downside of these beautiful, arty books like Zeldin’s is that there are no references, but my googling skills are, though I say so myself, damned fine, and I found the book in question immediately – Conflict Talk: Sociolinguistic Investigations of Arguments in Conversations by Allen D. Grimshaw. I enjoyed the mental image of Italian children arguing over opinions and beliefs with panache, and was reminded of George Lakoff’s example of metaphor of argument as war that is so common in the West. 

I think it is this dogged determination to see argument as war that causes us to think that agreement – ‘peace’ – is our primary objective.  The metaphor may cause some of us to fear argument and/or close it down as quickly as possible, and others to ‘attack’, with victory the only acceptable outcome. Lakoff – in Metaphors We Live By – does a great job of enabling the reader to consider the concept of argument afresh, and I think the book – on the shelf since my MA – is definitely worth revisiting. The challenge of course is to have an argument where both parties are thinking constructively about argument, but of course that would be a fantastic conversation starter 😉

Zeldin also speaks in his book about the impact of computers on our conversations. I think computers can be pretty awful for conversations. Blog posts, for example, are akin to conversational hand-grenades thrown over walls and minefields. Discuss 😉

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