The Last Days of Conversation

Posted May 16th, 2011 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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The “Ted Landphair’s America” blog that provoked the most feedback was “Math, Smath,” about the pluses and minuses — if you’ll forgive the pun — of requiring high-school students to take Advanced Algebra.

Some of the replies broadened the issue into a discussion about modern education.  They were illuminating, and I particularly want to call your attention to this  fragment of a note from reader “Dave” :

Why should I have had to sit through those courses, even though I do not use those skills in my normal life?

The answer is that it makes us well rounded individuals. Because I can write properly, I can communicate with non-engineers to get my ideas across and further my career. Because I know something of literature and history, I can carry on conversations with people who couldn’t tell an ohm from a mho. It allows me to function in society with other people who are not like me.

If there were a hospice for moribund communication forms, conversation would be in it.  (HowardLake, Flickr Creative Commons)

If there were a hospice for moribund communication forms, conversation would be in it. (HowardLake, Flickr Creative Commons)

The word that jumps out to me is “conversations,” because I have just finished reading a clever but profound excerpt, titled “An elegy for conversation,” from Alexandra Petri’s humor blog.

The meat of it follows her lament about “Yammering Man, the One Who Speaks Loudly on a Cellphone in Public”:

Conversation has always been a bewildering art.  It dates back, like so many arts . . . to a mysterious and bygone epoch When There Was Nothing Better To Do. . . .

I miss the slivers of conversation that you’d hear in an elevator.  I miss the days when the people around me were engaged in anything other than checking their phones repeatedly.  I miss when I wasn’t doing the same.  I miss the voices.

She misses — that word again — conversation.

Sometimes in my “Wild Words” at the end of these posts, I’ll present an ordinary term’s current meaning and then take you back to its much richer roots in ancient Greek, Middle English or wherever.

The photographer of this image titled it, "Chatting during the break."  We "chat" at lot these days.  Converse, not so much.  (ahockley, Flickr Creative Commons)

Conversation is something like that.  Blurting back and forth on handheld text devices, for instance, is a threadbare imitation of conversation, a sort of rat-a-tat-tat exchange of fire between trenches.

Nor is posting your deepest thoughts in 139 characters “conversing.”  You don’t really converse on a cellphone, either.  When you finally connect, so often you’re on the go, in a rush, sitting in an office cauldron, or fidgeting with connection fades and drop-outs.

Even most face-to-face exchanges are not conversations.  They’re utilitarian and nothing to savor.

For me, as I’ve told you, the most satisfying entertainment — better than a ballgame or a superstar’s concert, better than watching any show you can name on TV, better than catching the hottest of movies — is an undistracted conversation with Carol and friends over dinner, with a colleague over lunch, with my kids over pizza, and with engaging strangers over a drink.

Especially, to quote reader John again, “people who are not like me.”

Real, often lingering, conversation is refined by gestures and facial expressions and nuances of voice.  It’s enhanced by meaningful listening — even occasional pondering — two underrated and endangered conversational arts.

A visual representation of what passes for conversation much of the time.  (Consulat-de-la-Boirie, Flickr Creative Commons)

A visual representation of what passes for conversation much of the time. (Consulat-de-la-Boirie, Flickr Creative Commons)

Admit it.  We don’t pay close attention to others online or on little palm-held screens.  Our stream of words is answered by another’s stream of words.  On the phone, we mostly talk to, not with, someone, perhaps while painting our nails, making rude faces, half-watching a soap opera, or even writing an email to someone else, for all the person on the other end of the — I almost said “line” — would know.

As Alexandra Petri pointed out in yet another riff about conversation, in the Harvard Crimson,  “Unlike actual conversation, texts, Gchats, Tweets, wallposts, and e-mails are things you can simply wander off and ignore with total impunity. Our generation likes that. We don’t want to be trapped listening to you explain fiscal policy when we could be watching a video of a cat running into a wall.”

Busy, impatient, distracted, preoccupied, selfish, we communicate, after a fashion, like never before.  But we rarely converse.  When’s the last time you thought, “You know, I got the best e-mail the other day”?  Or told someone, “We got to texting, and before you knew it, it was midnight!”

Now THIS has the look, at least, of a real conversation.  (zawtowers, Flickr Creative Commons)

Now THIS has the look, at least, of a real conversation. (zawtowers, Flickr Creative Commons)

While not always fast, efficient, or measurably productive, real conversations are revealing, bonding, nuanced, persuasive, often fun, and even, on occasion, memorable.

And true enough, conversation is also flawed, inefficient, often emotional.  Human, in other words.

Do you miss it, too?

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Cauldron. Literally, a cauldron is a big pot, such as the one in which witches are said to boil their deadly potions. But the word has been expanded to mean a situation that is full of activity or heated emotion.

Elegy. A poem of mourning — not always sad, but almost always deeply thoughtful about the passing of someone or some thing.

Lament. An expression of sorrow, grief, or strong regret.

Ponder. To think about something deeply and seriously, or weigh it carefully before making a decision.

Wallpost. On Facebook, the column on which you place notes, blogs, reader comments, and photos is called a “wall.” Those contributions, therefore, are “wallposts” — often also spelled as two words.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


May 2011
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