Interweave Newsletter Fall 2010
Conversation in Crisis?
Good relationships depend on good and effective conversation—among friends, family, at work and in society. Without a healthy culture of conversation, all manner of things don’t work well.
For that reason, when the young lady at our Growing Up in the Internet Age event last winter remarked that she had “grown up after the Age of Conversation” I was struck by the accuracy of her insight. We had been discussing how email, Facebook and cell phone texting had turned “conversation” among many teens into a constant exchange of sound bites rather than fully developed ideas. And the Head of the girls’ school shared with us how her teachers were now integrating instruction about and practice of conversation into many subjects, lest the kids never experience how to discuss and debate ideas.
Many social signs around us point to the fact that the Age of Conversation is over for a great many more people than middle schoolers. We’ve seen, in recent years, the town meetings of Congressional Representatives turned into (carefully coordinated) shouting matches. Gutter TV talk shows and talk radio have, for a decade and more, specialized in confrontational talk rather than what used to be called “reasoned debate.”
A local educator told me years back that she “had a student body in which half the kids don’t know how to deal with a disagreement without shouting at each other, or worse.” And more than one fellow older clergy person has told me that discussions in his church’s ruling body were considerably more confrontational and less productive than they were some decades ago. And more than one observer would agree with Deborah Tannen’s assertion, fifteen years ago, that we are now in an “Argument Culture” that impedes productive democratic (and religious, and simply social) processes.
Listeners and speakers must speak cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in an effective way. It is a learned art, in every generation.
Civil discourse in an earlier era
America has had its share of shouting matches in every generation since its founding as a nation, to be sure, but there was once a widespread culture of conversation, taught and learned. Elegant young ladies learned it in finishing schools, their brothers in secondary schools. But this culture was not reserved for the wealthy alone. I remember vividly the way in which my Tennessee grandfather and his farmer friends (none of whom had more than an 8th grade education, and many a good deal less) engaged in “reasoned debate” as well as just chewing the fat in friendly conversation. They not only talked about crop rotation methods and the newest and best farm machinery; they talked about politics and religion as well. They disagreed often, but knew how to do it respectfully and graciously. These men, born between 1890 and 1910, grew up in a world where a formal debating tradition was still alive in politics and religion. They had heard real debates, run according to the classical rules, in which the opponents had to actually respond to the arguments the other side made with cogent answers, rather than the sad exchange of campaign sound-bites we are treated to every election year. The formal debate style rubbed off on them: “I’ll grant you that point, but have you considered this other set of facts?” These partly-schooled American farmers who lived in the “Age of Conversation” knew how to do it! (They also knew a lot about Civics, how government was structured, and how it worked, too; they had actual encounters with state and national legislators at state and county fairs, people who asked their opinions; but that’s another conversation for another time).
They kept these conversations from turning into confrontations not only from the debate style, but by using a simple set of maxims they had internalized from their schooling — real all-American bromides that were part of what almost everyone once knew, maxims like “A soft answer turneth away wrath” from the book of Proverbs and “Speak the truth in love” from the New Testament. Their fail-safe exit maxim, always used if the conversation was becoming too heated, was “Though I may disagree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Everybody knew the conversation was over. “Well, gotta go now. Good talkin’ to you....”
“Good talkin’ to you”
Healthy, life-giving conversations need a firm set of rules, or if you prefer, manners. Oxford philosopher Paul Grice, who studied what he called the “pragmatics of natural language” calls them “conversational maxims” and they really illuminate for me what those Tennessee farmers were doing as they sat around jawing about religion and local politics.
Be truthful. Don’t say what you believe to be false, or something for which you lack adequate evidence.
Don’t over-inform. Make your contribution as informative as is required for this particular conversational exchange.
Stay relevant. Stick to the subject and don’t hop all over the place.
Be clear. Avoid obscurity and ambiguity as much as possible, and don’t keep hogging the stage. Let the conversation go back and forth between participants.
Be prepared to learn. Conversations are the ideal form of communication since they allow people with different views on a topic to learn from each other.
Rebuilding the Art of Conversation
Of course, the art of conversation isn’t dead among us, just severely threatened in the public areana. We discov-
ered, in polling Interweave’s participants, that a chance for good conversation about interesting subjects is of major value to them. This is no surprise, since we’ve been using “norms for sharing” from the beginning that parallel Grice’s insights:
Listen actively, and let others finish
Don’t jump to judgment too quickly
Encourage participation of all
Don’t hog air time
Stick to the subject
Ask clarifying questions
Following these norms allows us to explore edgy, sometimes controversial subjects in an atmosphere of “conversational security” that can lead to very rewarding results.
Such norms are used in the national Study Circles project of Everyday Democracy (www.everyday-democracy.org) whose goal is to foster good local community conversation as the “cornerstone of a vibrant national democracy.” Almost a decade ago, Interweave helped spearhead a series of their Study Circles among leadership and citizens of Summit, NJ, strengthening the culture of dialogue. The tragic robbery and murder of a Summit immigrant employee this past summer opened the door, for the first time, for effective town meetings between the Mayor, the police and the Latino community. Study circles of many kinds, all over the country, are helping restore our ability to handle difficult issues in a time-honored American fashion. Just as interfaith dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims is building solid bridges in a time for religio-political conflict.
The art of conversation begins, however, wherever we are, whatever we are talking about. The young lady born “after the Age of Conversation” said that she learned some of the art from her family’s practice of having dinner together most nights of the week and actually talking. Whether it be at work, or at your religious congregation, whether the topic be simple and sweet or difficult and prickly, having some realistic “maxims for conversation” solidly lodged in heart and mind can help you be a creative change agent in a culture all too prone to sound bites and soapbox sounding-off. Most especially if you actually listen to the other people with a mind open to learn something that stretches your understanding of the others, or the world itself.
—Robert Corin Morris