Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In appreciation of conversation

I've recently had the gift of long conversations with several friends, and am grateful to them.

Good conversation is a dying art. When I enjoy an engrossing exchange, I realize how deeply discourse nourishes me, especially around a table.

Canadians in conversation: we could do better

Our character, famously that of moderation and restraint, does not generate sparkling raconteurs or compelling conversationalists. (Le Duc says this charge is more apt for anglophones than francophones.) One of the classic bits of Canadiana concerns a contest run by the CBC. The task: to submit an ending for the simile "As Canadian as..."; the winner was "As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances".

We qualify habitually: an art exhibit might be described as "quite lovely". We overuse bland adjectives: "I saw some nice plays at Stratford." Too often, we call anything not within our immediate ken different or interesting, substituting safe, meaningless generalities for assertive opinion.

And yet, I know plenty of great Canadian talkers. My friend Marla, who grew up between Manchester, England and Vancouver, BC, for example. One of the delights of dining with her every few weeks
is hearing her deliver every shade of uncensored emotion with fluency and wit– never mind who overhears. She is an avid reader, which informs her verbal skills.

If I crave controversy, J-G wades in. He opposes conventional thinking, and as the articulate defender of countervailing perspectives, floats the boat at a party. But he doesn't attack the person, just the logic. He watches another guest's eyebrows recede into his hairline, grins, and claps him on the shoulder with genuine affection. (You guessed right, in Canada forty-five years, but originally a Spaniard.)

How do women conversationalists compare to men?

Robin Tolmach Lakoff, in her book "Talking Power" lists fourteen characteristics of womens' language (in North America) including
  • Women won't commit themselves to an opinion
  • Women are more indirect and polite than men, and
  • In conversation, women are more likely to be interrupted, less likely to introduce successful topics.
Because she writes in the academic passive voice ("Numerous traits have been said to characterize women's forms of speech in this culture"), I can't cite her sources. The characteristics are not (as Tolmach Lakoff agrees) displayed by all women, or to the same extent.

My mother's friends said what they thought and launched into amplifying detail, whatever the topic. They were peppery, straight-talking broads who liked a highball as they chatted– which may have disinhibited them. They had something to say and said it, even if there were occasional phone calls the next day to apologize for their candour.

At one point, my father tried to ban my mother from discussing politics, but she would agree only if the deal were reciprocal. End of discussion.

Maybe that's a factor:
in Canada, with diversity a fact of life, perhaps we're leery of offending. Our respect for difference might (oh yes, yet another Canuck qualifier) lead us to water down forthright opinion out of respect for "all kinds".

When a great conversation comes my way, I'm inspired and invigorated. Sometimes I scramble to hold up my end, which differs from monopolizing or scoring points. Real conversation is communion, not competition. Both parties feel alive.

The blogs I read regularly often resemble conversation in their provocative and fervent exchanges. I sometimes want to drop everything and just talk with the writer. Good thing there's not a phone number on some of your posts!


10 comments:

metscan said...

I had a suspicion that you would some day bring this topic up. No way can I ever compete with you on this subject, never even crossed my mind. Btw, I nearly always have to turn to my dictionary at least once reading your posts ;) But going back to what you wrote, it is so true in my country too. I have taken part in discussion groups numerous times and sometimes, actually often, it is painful to listen people talk. What has happened to our language? Just about everyone uses fillers ( you know, kinda..some become so popular, that every other word is,you know, kinda, etc ). Not only do the words we use annoy me, it is also what we are saying. I agree, we should appreciate conversation more.

Deja Pseu said...

I miss the opportunities I used to have to engage in thoughtful, spirited conversations with a diverse group of friends. I mostly have those kinds of conversations online these days.

greying pixie said...

However, I do think style and substance should never be confused. I have many dear friends and relatives who really know how to keep a conversation going, but if I'm not in the mood to talk about children, school, washing powder, husbands' habits, etc. then I've learned to keep well away. I think you nailed it with your observation on being well read.

This is also something I associate with North Americans. More than once I've been in professional situations, eg. conferences, where delegates have been quite starchy and formal. Enter a couple of Americans - the whole atmosphere thaws and the party begins! So don't be too hard on your compatriots Duchesse, compared to the Brits you're all a breath of fresh air!

Duchesse said...

GP: You reminded me af a cartoon published in a recent New York Times' Book Review review of an anthology of the best cartoons of Punch. The cartoon shows a long row of English guests seated at a formal dinner; everyone looks glum. The caption: "A disinclination to sparkle."

metscan: According to an American organization of English teachers, a child's working vocabulary has been in decline for decades. Wonder how to reverse that trend now that kids text rather than speak?

Pseu: Do you talk, or mostly reply in text? The spoken exchange is still my preferred mode.

LPC said...

I also can't help but think, hmm, be fun to get tipsy with that person. Luckily that's very hard to do virtually.

materfamilias said...

Luckily, I have many opportunities to have lively and rigorous conversations, especially in my workplace. What I really miss, though, are the sustained, honest, and personal conversations I used to have time to develop and nurture with women friends, especially in the years I was raising my kids. I sometimes regret that I prioritized going back to school and developing a new career at the cost of letting go of those friendships. On the other hand, not doing so might have come at the cost of stagnation and the conversations might have lost their lustre.
Obviously though, Duchesse, you're one who knows how to create a conversation and keep one going . . . I can't help but wish, with LPC, that we could all be having it with a glass of wine in our hands -- what about it? on my deck, next summer?

tiffany said...

Interesting what you say about Canadians and their qualifiers. An English guy we once met while travelling said that he thought Australians were most guilty of this - it's quite typical to say 'I might go and have a shower now' instead of 'I am going to go and have a shower now'. And it's men as well as women. I think conversation is the reason that my favourite type of social gathering is always the dinner or lunch party, where you can settle in and spend a serious amount of time really talking. Re children's diminishing vocabularies, I notice it in the school children I teach, but much less so for children whose families are great readers and keen talkers.

dana said...

Conversation is my passion, my reason for seeking out other wonderful writers and thinkers online, like this group. It's essential. It's life giving. It's a spiritual communion, my favorite one. My grandma was a master. Ours are sadly diminished since her death.

Brenda Ueland's "listening" essay, which can be found online, is another key to conversations' great powers.

And yes, it has to have substance, intellectual or emotional content. Not regarding housework or television.

Duchesse said...

Brenda: The experience of a great conversationilst in the family, it shapes one. I'll look for the essay. I have Ueland's book, Strength in Your Sword Arm.

The topics of conversation you and greying pixie mention sometimes serves to connect people and is all they can manage, but mostly it's what Eric Berne called "pastiming"- not much is given or invested.

dana said...

And I forgot to mention, in my book, it's more intimate than sex. I find I'm not particularly proud of this admission. Either I'm not getting the goods at home, or I'm getting too much of them elsewhere! I'm (mostly) kidding.