The lost art of conversation

It is well established that nobody writes well anymore. Ask a college English instructor to tell you how many of his students can write a couple of simple paragraphs that have all the necessary elements of a sentence. The instructor is happy if they can do it without misspelling a dozen words.

A while back, I read a book that consisted of letters written between family members during the Civil War. Those letters were great literature compared with what passes for writing today. You might blame our lack of writing skills on the invention of the telephone. Why write when we can call? We can call anywhere and at any time, so then we must be great conversationalists, right?


If conversation is an art, most of us are flunking art class. What passes for conversation today is someone reciting what they did that day or that night or that weekend. The recitation is often in excruciating detail, as if their most mundane occurrence should be a revelation to you. If she went to the supermarket, she will tell you what she paid for toilet tissue. That would be OK if this led to a discussion of the factors that go into the cost of living, but that would violate the requirement that every other sentence winds up with a clich�. "Everything is so high," she’ll say, and nod her head as if she has just figured out the complexities of the Keynesian theory of economics.

Hey, I’m not picking on women — the guys are just as bad.

With guys, what passes for conversation is mostly a mixture of sports talk, interrupted only by a call for capital punishment exacted against the celebrity criminal of the day, and punctuated by a quick assessment of the boobs of any female who happens to walk within 10 feet of where the guys are talking.

The only change in this pattern is that, as guys grow older, their conversation gives only a passing nod to sports ("They’re all bums!") and women ("What’s a rack?") and centers mostly on celebrity capital punishment ("They ought to fry [fill in O.J. Simpson, Ira Einhorn or Fred Neulander].)." At which point someone will exclaim that the electric chair is too good for him. But where we used to brag about our penis size, we now brag about the size of our pension check.

One of the reasons why the skill of good conversation is lagging is that often religion and politics are out of bounds. We have all been taught that the surest way to an argument is to converse about these two topics. Most of us have also been taught to be non-confrontational, so the consequence is not only do we avoid controversy, we also avoid stimulating conversation. But that doesn’t entirely explain the dullness of our chatter.

One of the prime problems is that many of us truly don’t have anything to say. If you took away ourselves as the main topic of interest, we would be struck mute. My solution for this problem is not to ostracize these folks, but to bring them together, preferably all in one place and at the same time. Let them babble until their throats are parched and dry.

My late brother-in-law used to say, "Everyone talks and nobody listens." But these people would be so busy talking at great length about every aspect of their day that they would never notice that no one would be listening. All of them would be too immersed in talking about themselves. Blessedly, the rest of us would be spared.

Another problem is that married people tend to segregate their conversations by gender. One of the cardinal rules of many married people is that their conversation never crosses gender lines. Sometimes, as if to emphasize this necessity, a host will physically segregate the gals from the guys. As with all forms of forced segregation, the consequence is to narrow our outlook. Segregation by gender enforces the notion that men and women have little in common to talk about.

My own belief is that this notion is reinforced by educating kids in gender-specific schools and reading pop psychology such as Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars. This attitude logically leads to the kind of gender jokes that make the rounds by e-mail these days. It used to be men telling dumb-blonde jokes, but women have gotten even by e-mail these days. The point of most e-mail punch lines nowadays is almost always the same: We love our men, but they are dumb, smelly oafs who would be living in caves if it weren’t for us.

Most men don’t care or don’t notice these feminine daggers because our main preoccupation now seems to be trying to figure out whether the woman nearest us had breast-enhancement surgery.

As I was growing up, the prevalent attitude among adults was that television killed the art of conversation. Now cell phones have given us conversation back only for us to realize that most of us don’t have anything worthwhile to say.

Tom Cardella can be heard conversing before and after the Eagles-Seahawks game Sunday on 94-FM WYSP.