The Lost Art of Conversation

Of life’s manifold pleasures, conversation is perhaps the least regarded, most overlooked and frequently taken for granted. Could it be because it is the most easily obtained? Theatre, sport, cinema, fine food and activities that require a safe word cost a lot of money.

Talk is free. For now.

How about I build a paywall around my person, charging for chat? A premium subscriber would be entitled to several laughs, the odd guffaw, some interesting factual nuggets, executive swearing, the chance of a compliment and an unspoken sense that their life has been enhanced in some indefinable way.

Except, that’s not how conversation works. It takes at least two interested parties, surprising each other with what’s in their heads. Or alarming them, if you’re with Half-life. You’re required to adapt to the circumstances, think on the hoof, build on the what’s gone before, generating an exchange that is impossible to predict and invites further interaction. Artificial Intelligence has a long way to go before you’re tempted to meet it for a pint.

There are no losers, only winners in good dialogue, though Half-life told me he once represented England Youth in conversation, before a head butt, a red card and performance-enhancing drugs led to a lifetime ban.

You can Che that again

‘Are you sure we’re still talking about conversation?’ I enquired.

‘My apologies. I’m thinking of chess.’

In conversation, you may learn something. You may learn about the Inuit, the potato famine, yourself, or the company you’re with. You may have your vocabulary expanded, your knowledge of the world broadened or simply learn that Jazmin copped off with Jack but now regrets it because Jack has the IQ of a peanut and is hung like a squirrel.

Conversation is not like a box of chocolates. The only boundaries are your own.

When to avoid conversation

Having eulogised about conversation, it’s important to note that there is no excuse for chatty morning people. There is simply something wrong with them. Morning is not a time for verbiage. It is a time for sleep. If you must rise and be with people, the least you can do is shut up. If you are unfortunate enough to be awake, it is a time of recovery. A time for coffee, thought-gathering and bacon.

You’ve probably heard of the gent who, when asked how he would like his hair cut, replied: ‘In silence’. If your Barnet gets trimmed along with inane questions about boyfriends and holidays, it’s time for a change. My hair cuts tend to be accompanied by news of upcoming gigs and the best places to find magic mushrooms. Lady South tells me she returns to her hairdresser as on her first visit he welcomed her with a tale of how he’d rogered a Sergeant Major the night before. In situations when conversation is inevitable, your choice of companion is vital. Always choose a wonky.

barber shop
Yeah, the Sleaford Mods were blindin’

If I find myself in a cab late at night, I’m often not in the mood to talk. If I need a car home I am almost certainly slurring. I like to think I’m sparing us both. One of my egalitarian friends insists on engaging the driver regardless of what state he’s in. He often asks where the driver is from. It’s a good starting point for a conversation generally. But if the driver says he’s from Tanzania and you’ve never been there, but have been to Norway and proceed to tell him everything you know about Norway, you’re not making conversation – you’re just talking about Norway. It may be nice for the driver to be included in the chatter but it’s worth remembering that when we’re drunk, we are as boring as fuck to sober people.

Technology and talk

Our recent reliance on screens has had a massive impact on our willingness to converse. Psychologist Sherry Turkle describes us as, ‘Alone together’, as even people who go out together then sit in bars and restaurants silently engaged with their phones, but uninvolved with each other. It’s understandable in rush hour crushes, but when it impinges on our interactions at home, in cafes and in pubs, it’s time to put the phone down, look your friend in the eye and tell them all about Jazmin and Jack.

There’s this idea that we are more connected than ever, because we can count our friends and they are able to see what we share with them, even if they’re on another continent, or in North London. But in an echo chamber, you only hear the sound of your own voice. As useful and ubiquitous as it is, it’s such a poor relation to the real thing. Likes, lols, gifs and emojis are off-the-shelf responses. Spontaneous verbal ripostes are made to measure, with a gusset full of nuance.

No, I’m all ears, fam

What makes good conversation?

Convention may tell you to keep it light, embrace small talk, be complimentary and be sure to listen. These tips work for brief convos with strangers at bus stops but for anything over three minutes, you need charm, humour and the unforeseen.

Our friend, Half-life, breaks all of the rules of conversation. He’s rude, sometimes insulting, isn’t that interested in your opinion and frequently raises unpleasant, inappropriate or frankly disgusting subjects. But he is not dull. He manages to win people over through being himself. Too much himself sometimes, but I’ve never heard anyone say: ‘Half-life? No, don’t remember him.’

Clearly what constitutes good conversation depends on you and the company you choose. We are our own curators. The art of it isn’t lost though. It is still found in all the best places; pubs, cafes, parks, riversides and pubs again. But it has a new rival now, in social media. A poor relation, vast in its reach but not so strong at close quarters.

When I see the astonishing array of events friends attend in a city like London, whether it’s music or comedy or full volume mime, it’s very rare that I’d choose to join them over, say, a park bench with a mate and a bag o’ cans. As uplifting as the performances of a number of artists can be, we have entertained each other with storytelling, swapping views and utter bullshit for millennia and it’s hard to beat it for value, unexpected tangents and things that go well with a quality pint.

And unlike Shakespeare, you can even have it while watching the football, with some pork scratchings. Take that, Hamlet.


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Image credits: Main image by stekelbes, Conversation by Charles Pieters and Barber Shop by Mike used under this licence. Conversation by Paul Sableman used under this licence.