I fail to understand why conversation and the ability to engage in one, has lost its virtue. It has become something we would all like but dislike to be recognised for or made a stellar example of it without other accompanying preferable accolades.
I read, a while ago, about the salons of Paris. Such a delightful concept. No, they are not the same as kitty parties (and I was audience to one in the days when ladies found me cute and of little to no consequence. I think only the former has changed over time). Conversation is an art, and it does get tiring with everyone calling everything an art, but conversation really is. Having scores of friends spread over so many cities, one observation I can make is that people do not enjoy conversation as much as they believe they do.
Conversation allows a sprinkling of small-talk, but can never stand entirely on the struts of such banter. Conversation is intellectual, sympathetic, mutually fulfilling, light and nearly always leaves the person rejuvenated (versus the feeling at the end of a 1 hour lecture). Undoubtedly the two greatest elements of conversation are: memory and a patient ear.
Listening is vital to a conversation. Conversation is not to impress others (oh! please it isn’t unless in an epigamic ritual). I recall the days when I was preparing for the MBA entrance exams and the notion of a group-discussion (GD, as one of the rounds of elimination was called) was discussed often. I found it crude and repulsive to have a bunch of people discuss a matter with the sole basis of oneupmanship. I actually was quiet through the mock GD sessions and would make clear deliberate points whenever others were forced to catch their breath. The panel’s verdict: “You need to be more aggressive and come in often. The points you raised were very valid but you need to press it down further.” I am sorry. I don’t intend doing that, unless I know you guys personally, in which case, it wouldn’t be aggressiveness. Listening requires patience and a clear realisation (I don’t like the word humility) that there is always more to know and learn. And the benefit of shutting up and listening is also the tinkle of several voices to make up a human orchestra. I am culprit to interrupting a speaker (and in some cultures that is rude) but that is usually offset by the next vital need of a conversation.
A sharp memory is essential for a rewarding conversation. Not only does it help in enriching the discussion with information, observations and informed inferences, it also help in maintaining a respectable cohesion. A ruffian conversation, straying in every possible direction, can be stimulating initially but tiring after a breakpoint. A good memory also helps (and this is why my friends often excuse my interrupting) in keeping track of where conversations diverted and the train of thought that led from each fork. To be able to trace a conversation up its meander is very useful.
“Why are we discussing Miss Universe contests, when we were talking about seafood?”
“Well, D went on to talk about shrimps and lobster fishing, when S mentioned squid hunting off the Greek coast. I mentioned reading about reading about squid hunting in some Greek book and you asked me whether it was in a Nikos Kazantzakis one. I said no, before G mentioned the Greek eating every kind of seafood. K wanted to know whether they are the largest manufacturers of packaged seafood, when I mentioned that it was mostly the South American, Scandinavian companies and probably South Africa. D jumped in and said that South Africa did nothing but host Miss Universe contests. Then we had to discuss the long legged beauties and S being S had to question the sense behind these contests. Voila!”
It requires great attention and a deliberate operation of continuously linking things up in order to understand where and why conversations changed direction. It helps in reminding a person who tends to pause often and ask “What was I talking about?” or “Why did I mention acrylics?”. So, my usual strategy would be to quickly mention something, pertinent to what someone was saying, and then loop back with a “ok! do continue with what you were saying about the state of farmers in Maharashtra.” No one missed anything! 🙂
Recently a dear friend of mine and I had this discussion about whether it makes sense to visit art with a scholarly pince–nez or enjoy it in all its nudity before employing the mind to delve deeper into the facets and constructs of the art form instance. Neither of us convinced the other, but the discussion raged for hours over the phone and then over emails. That kind of stimulating conversation (although this was more of a dialogue) is essentially lacking in most congregations. Yesterday, while taking a break from the tonnes of interviews I had to conduct, a few of us were discussing pay packages, before we veered towards loans and buying houses in Bangalore. The conversation then hung around the topic of how pathetic Bangalore real estate prices are without providing an infrastructure backbone. Then the value of a crore was discussed before we jumped on to the latest find of the I-T dept. – a man who had managed to accumulate 35,000 crores without anyone noticing it. We went on and on and discussed so many things (about how he could personally fund India’s deficit). It was so lively before we were reminded that candidates were waiting!
My mom would often ask, “What are you going to get by just talking and talking?” I suppose nothing, but isn’t that exactly what I want? 😉