Conversation is more than talk. It’s more than idle chitchat. It’s sometimes fun and silly, often a great reliever of stress, or just a way to pass the time. It can be tough as well, even as it’s pleasurable, though it’s not about conflict or aggression. Some conversations seek to hom/ne in on something while others open things out. Some people live for a good conversation. Some of the best are the ones we don’t want to have: we need to have them, we need to get something out of our system, we need to communicate something, or hear from someone. Conversation is a necessarily social thing and is a building block of society itself: the word even comes from a Latin word for society.
It works best when it’s about exchange and seeking shared understandings. It’s best when people are on an even keel and information flows freely, in just the right amounts. It’s a human exchange, though, and its joys lie in its imperfections. They can ramble or be quick, deal in certainties or be speculative. Sometimes they are formal and sometimes not, but always they operate through an unspoken etiquette: masters of the art know when to speak and when to listen, what to say and what to keep to themselves.
But these skills or rules or pathways to success are also the great limits of conversation. Because conversation is so social, it means that it so specific to specific groups. It can be hard for a great conversationalist from somewhere to get a word in somewhere else. And the hierarchies within social structures can be sadly reproduced in speech, those on top all talk and those below asocially silenced. A bad conversation can become a model of oppression, privileging those who now how to do it, or rather how to dominate. Other voices get lost in the virtuosic back and forth, and some are never even invited to partake.
This is the great challenge in every conversation we have: to make sure the conversation is all that it can be, an opener, a bridge, a place of exchange and understanding. We might not always like it, we might be afraid of what might happen, what might be said. But if it is conducted with generosity and sensitivity, we can broaden our own minds and edge the possibilities of our society out a little wider. The more people speaking, the more people being heard, the more connections we make, the better things will go.
A less attractive part of this is getting used to the fact that sometimes we have to listen to people we disagree with, or to people that we just don’t like. But by doing so, by listening to them, we encourage those people to listen to our point of view. There is no progress in shutting our ears, but there is much progress in exchanging and understanding each other’s different ideas. This is not to say that we should tolerate views which are harmful or disrespectful: on the contrary, surely understanding where those views come from, we can come to better, more cooperative solutions in real situations. By people from different places having conversations with one another, not just talking at one another, we have the opportunity to resolve issues in a manner which is mutually beneficial, and, ideally, moves society in a direction of peace and progress. If we expect others to listen to us, we cannot deny that privilege to others.
If we are going to change the world through the way we make conversation – and why shouldn’t we? – we need to know how it works. We need to know who’s not getting involved and why, and whose perspective could be interesting or fresh or insightful. We need to know when we should listen more and talk less, but also, too, when to be bold and speak our mind. We mustn’t be afraid of conflict or disagreement and must have courage to listen to others and to find common ground. Why not make conversation that changes the world? Why not use our awareness of this glorious social structure for the betterment of society? To do otherwise would be to simply reapply the failures of the past and ignore a solution well within our grasp.
So go forth and converse! Converse across familiar and unfamiliar landscapes: learn new ways to talk, and revel in listening. Invite someone in, and take a risk by joining someone else’s. Learn something new and teach something you love. And enjoy, as you’re doing it, the beautiful act of conversing the future into existence!