I love conversation. I love to debate and argue. But sometimes I get a little carried away, and start engaging in dueling monologues with someone and calling that a "conversation". So I thought it was a good time for me to revisit some basic rules of conversation.
The art of conversation is actually quite simple. It takes at least two people. Each person asks the other questions in an attempt to identify a topic of mutual interest. Once that topic is identified, one person starts talking about it, and the other person listens, and thinks of ways to expand on the topic based on what the other has said. If one is going to change the topic, one asks the other's permission first.
If, on the other hand, despite earnest attempts, no topic of mutual interest can be agreed upon, both parties may gracefully withdraw by saying "Well, it was nice speaking with you."
I think whether a conversation is a discussion, debate, or an argument is determined, again, by the mutual agreement of the parties. Some people like to stroll, some like to jog, and others like to sprint.
So what are appropriate topics of conversation?
The rules of appropriate topics of conversation change based on culture and context. A generation or two ago, for example, religion, politics, or money were considered inappropriate for polite conversation other than among the most intimate friends or close family.
Today, we are a less genteel and private culture, and I think these topics, and perhaps others (sex, personal hygiene habits, etc) are fair game, provided, as discussed above, all parties to the conversation consider them of mutual interest.
There is an old rule that bears mention, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, that says "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people".
This always sounded snooty to me. We can't always be up in the higher altitudes of thought (the light may be brighter above the clouds but the air is cold and thin) -- and I can't believe that Einstein, between working out the theory of relativity during his coffee breaks, never gossiped among the other patent clerks about who was kissing the boss's ass.
One of the most interesting conversations I have had in the last year was with an airline mechanic about all the work that goes into keeping commercial aircraft flying. Not only did I learn some new stuff, but I had the pleasure of learning it from a guy who is passionate about his work. And the greater pleasure of getting to know someone new.
Anthropologists tell us that language evolved originally not to convey information, but as a bonding activity for social cohesion. So maybe conversation isn't really about improving oneself or learning something new. Maybe its about connection and the simple joy of sharing time and space with other human beings.
What do you think?