On the true art of conversation

Assumption, projection and insecurity are hallmarks for most of today’s casual conversations. Casual Conversations are more like sporting events than attempts at understanding one another or in building relationships. In my experience, entering a casual conversation is a stressful game where conversants compete and try to outdo each other. 

For instance, I was recently with a group of relatives I hadn’t seen in several years when the topic of automobiles came up. I mentioned that we had recently purchased an Acura TLX only to have it totalled by a distracted driver two months later. The other driver broadsided my wife and I at such a high rate of speed that eight of the airbags deployed. Somehow, no one in either vehicle was hurt. When I paused in the story for a second, everyone there jumped in taking turns sharing their “I was in a wreck too” story. One person went into great detail about being rear ended. Another said he had fallen asleep driving home from work and plowed into a stopped vehicle. I was surprised to hear about these near tragedies and asked several questions. No one asked me anything. 

 "Real-life discussions involve a great many bores and boors who have never learned that the art of conversation demands listening as well as talking." — Susan Jacoby

Then the topic of our residence came into the conversation. Someone there said he had looked at  our house house prior to our having purchased it. Surprised, I mentioned a few positive reasons we liked the house, including that it was surrounded by over an acre that for us provided a fairly comfortable cushion of separation from the neighbors. He immediately said that the house he decided on included nearly two acres. I congratulated him on his find. 

"Conversation is the fine art of mutual consideration and communication about matters of common interest that basically have some human importance." — Ordway Tead

Some time previously, with a different group of people I’ve known for years, the topic of vehicles came up. I asked one gentleman about the car he was driving. Knowing a bit about the make and model I asked a few relevant questions, and he happily and enthusiastically launched into a detailed explanation of how he acquired this vehicle and the modifications he had installed. He added that he had the dealer replace the fabric seats with leather seats. Then after they completed the job he demanded they give him the removed seat fabric to take home. He had paid for it, he said, so he wanted it. He mentioned he put the fabric in storage. I related that I had owned a vehicle of the same make and had put approximately 200,000 miles on it before trading it in. With some obvious pride he said he always puts 300,000 miles on his cars and attributed that success to his meticulous service practices.  Although he was happy to respond to any questions I asked, he didn’t ask me anything. 

When we first moved into our current residence, I invited over some friends and I guess I was too happy about the house, because one of the people there made a few sarcastic remarks. I realized it must have seemed to him like I was bragging or something, when in fact I was just grateful to the fates for finally allowing what I considered a better living arrangement. 

"Silence is one of the great arts of conversation." — Marcus Tullius Cicero

It’s a shame how often this type of thing happens. I would very much like to enjoy friendly relationships with others, but I find conversational gamesmanship exhausting.  Assumption, projection, insecurity and perhaps even envy are nasty traps easily sprung during  so many casual conversations. It gives me a headache.

What I want to experiment with in the future is being more interested in others and making people feel good about themselves whenever I speak with them, or rather, while I listen to them speak. I doubt this will get me much closer to people, but perhaps it will be a gentle nudge to restoring the art of conversation. In any event, being kind is a virtue. 

"To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation." — Francois de la Rochefoucauld

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