I had lunch with three friends this week: one a former professor of Political Science at LSU; another a former professor of Art History at LSU, and also an Associate Dean; and the third a friend I met at book club. I anticipated delicious food, a gracious hostess, and stimulating conversation and I was not disappointed.
The conversation ranged from a trip to Greece two of the guests had taken to the revelation of the recent discovery that William Shakespeare aspired to a higher social level, and wanted to be accepted into those who have their own coat of arms. A sketch of his proposed coat of arms has recently been discovered: we moved on to another topic before I learned if he had ever been allowed to make it more than that.
We talked about quilting, about the rich cultural life in Houston, about religion and art–and stories that made us all laugh. With every topic, we learned more about each other, which is what conversation does. Or can do.
The conversation at my family’s dinner table was where I learned to express myself clearly and civilly, and where I also learned, from my father, that in a civilized society, one could express any opinon one had, but only if it rested on a rational premise supported by accurate, recent, and complete evidence, and was not presented in a deliberately provocative way.
My extended family was known for having high verbal members. One of the most notable of these was my Great-aunt Gabe, who spent a great deal of her time visiting her riends and family. A woman of great presence, Aunt Gabe was intelligent and witty, qualities much appreciated in anyone, but especially in a house guest. When I think of her, I think of a story about Aunt Gabe coming into a host’s dining room for breakfast. Instad of greeting the others, she said, “As I was saying–.”. and picked up the conversation where she’d left it the previous night.
To me, the art of conversation is one of the most important skills we can have. Instagrams, Tweets, texts, may convey information, but they can hardly compare with face-to-face conversation, which can also be held on Skype or Facetime. I read a recent article in THE NEW YORKER about a court case in, I think, New York, in which the prosecutor wanted to see the videos of the defendant’s interviews in addition to reading the transcripts, because, he said, facial expressions and gestures are part of oral communication, and without seeing these, it’s not possible to get an accurate impression of what was said.
I used to encourage my Freshman Composition students to learn the art of conversation. “To master it, you will have to expand your mind. You will have to get models of language in your head, and you can do that by reading for pleasure thirty minutes a day, and by forming opinions and contributing them to class discussion.”
I don’t know how many of these students followed my advice. I do know that when I think of some of the great American writers who grew up on family history and stories, who observed people rather than walking past them with an Ipod in their ears, I am grateful that they didn’t have devices that might be considered communication, but never artful conversation.