Lamenting the lost art of conversation

I received a Whatsapp forward recently, which read, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right time, but also to leave the wrong thing unsaid at the most tempting moments.” The weighty statement stayed on my mind for longer than most passing quotes these days do, for I wasn’t willing to buy its edifying bit outright. There was too much of the right and the wrong hemmed into it for comfort. It almost made conversation sound like a summit between diplomats of two estranged nations, prompting me to think what a good conversation in the regular context of human interaction actually entailed. Is it a string of dialogues squeezed into a straightjacket of propriety or is there something more to it? Do we really have conversations or do we just indulge in a lot of glib talk, which in the Bard’s words are “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”?

Let us admit – we don’t like being lectured. We believe that we are an intelligent lot and we don’t need any education from homegrown gurus. “Hence cut the preachy parts. We are well off without it.”

Even a Bollywood movie on ‘zindagi’ (life) with long trails of sermonic conversation are quickly dismissed as one boring dialogue with the potential to kill our imagination than inspire our mood.

But of course, why do we need rambling discourses on life when we are sorted and sane? Keep the heavy stuff for the intellectuals, and ladle out the flossy, spicy things to us, will you? Point taken. We are sorted, sane, and infinitesimally intelligent and aware too. Therefore, even as unsolicited ‘moral sciencing’ grates on our skin, we love to be part of both flimsy and frenzied discussions on the world and the people in it. We have our two pennies worth to give on what ails and how to set everything in perfect order. But beware. Give us a counter point and we will pick up a verbal fisticuff. By nature, we brook no dissidence. So, we let our loyalty to ideas steer our conversations to nasty arguments that often lead nowhere. Virtually.

It brings me back to the quote I mentioned at the beginning – saying the right things at the right time and refraining from saying the wrong things. Seriously, is there an obligation on us to say only the right things? If yes, what, in the heaven’s name, is the right thing and who decides it? Can’t we all mutually accept that we hold diverse views and are entitled to our individual thoughts? Do we really have to get combative or defensive when we talk about things that we feel differently about?

In an increasingly sensitive world, it is very difficult to even assess what will pass for harmless ribbing, and what might be morphed into a hugely offensive slur. Things that once tickled us now rankle our sensibilities. We take jokes too personally, and are no more charitable in our conversations. To have to measure words against the rules of political correctness is such a burden, and hardly makes conversations an art. Art is what happens spontaneously, and can be accomplished only by free spirits. For conversations to resemble art, it must be held by people who can talk openly as if they were at a poetic soiree, giving their hearts an occasion to sing in the comfort of the knowledge that ears are listening intently. Malice and margins have no presence in such a milieu.

However, the scope for misgivings has reduced conversations to either casual chats or serious spats, in both formal and informal settings. Where are the inspiring conversations where one could talk of little things that make life worthwhile; the sweet transparency between fellow minds and the readiness to talk and settle things amicably? Where are those small tete-a-tetes that let one share one’s thoughts without the worry of having to impress; the fear of being judged or misinterpreted; where words are both spoken and listened to evenly?

I wonder if, somewhere between our Whatsapp forwards and Facebook posts, and in the comfort they give us of remaining incognito, we have become proficient at chatting and utterly wooden at conversations. Chatting and conversing are two different things. We may have scores to chat with, but if we don’t earn at least a handful of people to converse and enhance our life with, it will be a life poorly and pathetically lived, and our verbal affairs will soon be reduced to (borrowing from P. G. Wodehouse),

“What ho!” I said.

“What ho!” said Motty.

“What ho! What ho!”

“What ho! What ho! What ho!”

After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

Asha Iyer Kumar is an author based in Dubai.

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