Conversationally Speaking

ConversationProfessor and author Alan Jacobs recently posted his thoughts on conversations.  On one level, that sounds kind of funny (as conversations are supposedly easy things to do).  And yet, as he points out in his criticism of the thoughts of others, there are definitely some things to keep in mind when reflecting on and “practicing” conversation.  Jacobs writes:

If someone were to ask me “How can I become a better conversationalist?” my first thought would be a question: “Why do you want to know?” Because if what you want is popularity or productivity, then conversation is no more than a means to some other end and maybe not even an especially useful means.

Genuine conversation, it seems to me, is not something that one can aim directly at. (In this sense it’s like happiness.) Genuine conversation happens not when you’ve decided you want to have some conversation but when you’re actually engaged with another person. Conversation emerges from a degree of leisure, from patience, and from the trust that enables people to be truly present with each other and to be well-disposed to each other. Rather than asking “how can I have good conversations” or (worse) “how can I be a good conversationalist,” I think we’d all do better to ask this: How can I live in such a way that conversations naturally emerge from my form of life?

Sobering and insightful, I think.  Definitely something about instrumentalism at play, since good conversation might not come from a kind of productivity standpoint. But leisure, patience, and trust aren’t all that easy to come by, either.  But Jacobs’ closing question is a good one, something solid to consider.

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