Monday, March 19, 2012

Can the art of conversation be taught? I think not!

As the sabbatical comes to an end, mentally I am beginning to get ready to return not only to my own little corner of this planet, but to the professional life as well.  Naturally, my web-surfing, too, is returning to some of the established habits from which I had taken a break and it included checking with A_L_Daily.  From there, off to this piece, which is about the art of conversation. 

I have no idea how awful or tolerable my company is at conversations, and I can only hope that people don't run away when they spot me five miles away, afraid that I am a terrible bore :)

Over the years, I learnt from a few people a couple of key traits: be genuinely interested in what the other person has to say at a party; lob others questions right up their alley because people think that we are good conversationalists when they have a good time talking about their favorite topics; always have a bunch of jokes and groaners in the metaphorical back pocket that can be appropriately interjected into conversations; judge what contexts are serious and which ones are on the lighter side; and, of course, resist every bloody temptation to talk about how great I am!

It turns out that what I have understood from over thirty-plus years of observations was always available for the taking, from Cicero!  Yes, Cicero of the old Roman times!  The FT piece quotes the statesman:
Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.
So, if I had been presented with Cicero's advice, say, when I was in my early teens, would that have made me a better conversationalist?

I am confident that the answer is a no.

This is not the same as teaching science; such aspects of life have to be experienced, and reflections on our experiences then make us better students, I suppose.  It took me a while to understand that I might be able to score some cheap laughs at somebody's expense, but that makes me neither a good conversationalist nor a better human.  It is not that this golden rule was never clearly laid out for me, but understanding through experiences is immensely profound.

I tend to think that every class meeting I have is nothing but conversations with students.  No class meeting is about me and, instead, the meetings are always about the students.  I invite them to join the conversations, and try to draw in the quieter ones in particular.  I have a stack of groaners and anecdotes ready, if the situation warrants.  What I learn in the classroom, I apply elsewhere, and what I experience in the "real world" I teach in the classroom.

Here is to hoping that I have learnt a lot more about conversations, over this sabbatical and that I am a better conversationalist in the classroom.

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