Are We Having a Conversation Yet? An Art Form Evolves

…is the headline of a recent NYTimes review by Edward Rothstein about Stephen Miller’s new book, "Conversation: A History of a Declining Art." From the review, it seems to be a very interesting book, and I think I’ll check it out from the library. It is fitting for an age of proliferating social media adoption, where a LOT and growing number of conversations are taking place.

Separating the book (which, I concede, I haven’t read) from the review, Rothstein offers a highbrow notion of conversation that simply stinks of snobbery:

Conversation is one of those acts that require subtle forms of social imagination: an ability to listen and interpret and imagine, an attentiveness to someone whose perspective is always essentially different, a responsiveness that both makes oneself known and allows the other to feel known — or else does none of this, but just keeps up appearances. It may be, then, one of the most fundamental political and social acts, indispensable to negotiating allegiances, establishing common ground, clearing tangled paths. Conversation may reflect not just the state of our selves, but the state of society.

O.K. But listen to "talk" radio, with its combative recruitment of allies; or "talk" shows in which guests are promoting themselves or their products and hosts are prepared with leading questions; or "talk" news shows in which conversation becomes a form of shouting. Look at our isolating iPods, at text messaging with its prepackaged formulas, or instant messaging with its iconic smilies, so necessary to make sure the telegraphic prose is not misunderstood. CUL8R.

I ask: What does talk radio or talk shows have to do with real conversation? By default, one-way broadcast media are anything but conversations. I don’t get the analogy. And what do Podcasts have to do with conversations – and how do they isolate us? And what does one’s choice of media consumption have to do with conversation? That link seems missing from this review, or from the book itself.

Then there’s text messaging, described above, which I guess is a metaphor for digital communications and social media. If anything, digital communications have broken down a lot of barriers – such as time, geography, class and a shortage of meeting nodes – to enable conversation, to enhance it. It is social media that are empowering and democratizing conversations. It is social media that are enabling the conversations of the little guys to be heard. The elite art may be altering, but the importance is increasing.

Net: I guess I’ll definitely have to read this book about conversations and let you know if it makes any sense! This review has sparked more questions than answers for me – and some of the logic seems flawed. But conversation sure is an extremely important topic right now, so I’ll give it that. Finally, no matter how conversation has evolved, there’s one person who could stand to think about embracing it, even just a little: President George W. Bush.

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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