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.