Sunday, April 02, 2006

Is the art of conversation dying?

Picture taken in 1977. Me on left.

Last Wednesday, KUOW's show called "The Conversation" featured the author of a book titled "Conversation: A history of a declining art," by Stephen Miller. It was a very interesting discussion even though the topic was cut a bit short to make way for KUOW's pledge drive. Yes, paying the bills takes precedence.

Good conversation can be highly satisfying, according to Miller. Where people gather and discuss topics in depth. Where there can be civil disagreement and something described as "bantering" back and forth with out hard feelings.

This kind of quality conversation has not been that common in America, and could even be in decline for various reasons.

Conversation that is purely for the sake of enlightenment often takes a back seat to more pragmatic matters of business. Also the pace of modern life is full of interruptions, such as cell phones, which fragment people's focus to the level of sound bytes.

Is this situation getting worse?

Maybe not. Here are some of my personal reflections.

Some people think younger generations are less into conversation than, say, us baby boomers.

I remember my college years when baby boomers were young. Moving into an all freshman dorm, I felt people were quite superficial. Most folks seemed to fit into only two categories; party goers or Jesus freaks.

I was in another set of dorms for my sophomore year where there was one dorm for senior citizens. It was a special program called "The Fairhaven Bridge Project." A dorm for senior citizens going back to school to mingle with the college kids.

I often found myself sitting at the senior citizen tables, in the dining hall, because their conversation had more depth than my fellow students. Above photo shows me conversing at one of those tables back in 1976. Picture was taken for a a brochure on the Bridge Project.

It is possible that the superficiality of today's young folk isn't any worse than it was in our generation. At least in my personal experience.

Since college, I have found my conversations have gotten richer as the years pass. Maybe I am just finding myself among more receptive folks.

Do people tend to get more sophisticated as they get older?

Technology is another thing that is often blamed for the decline of conversation. This also might not be any worse than it was 30 years ago. Back then, people would watch TV, rather than talk to one another. Today there are more electronic gizmos to avoid face to face contact, but it could be just "more of same." TV was bad enough. Now there are Ipods, but we had Walkmans back then.

The Internet is blamed, but it might be more of a blessing than a curse. I know of a lot of folks who can get together in small group discussions because they have found each other on the Internet.

One good thing about the Internet is the fact that small gatherings can get the word out. In the bad old days, small gatherings couldn't afford print space or media time. Maybe something could get a short mention in a calendar, but these were basically sound bytes. Now one can open up more meaningful descriptions of small events on the web. It's the small events and discussions where interaction is often best. Big venues are more likely to be lectures, rather than conversations.

One place where civil conversation, and good natured bantering seems to thrive is at the YMCA sauna. This may vary from location to location. Also it depends on the time, and who happens to be around. Here at my YMCA, these kind of impromptu conversations seem quite common.

Does nudity create a better climate for sharing? Or is it just the fact that most people are afraid to take their cell phones into the hot space for fear of cooking the electronics. For now, at least, saunas and steam rooms tend to be "cell phone free" spaces.

Many folks lament the lack of good dialog in coffee shops these days. It's true. You look in the window and see folks hunched over their laptops.

Bars have never been that appealing to me. Too superficial and intellectual conversation is discouraged, or drowned out in loud music.

So maybe the art of conversation is still alive in places like saunas; rather than coffee shops. Also, the Internet may be more help than harm. People just need to think in some new ways.

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