Daniel Menaker, author and editor, has been thinking a lot about the qualities of good conversation. His new book, “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation,” is an entertaining, thought-provoking, at times irritating compendium that considers the history, the structure, the process, the value of conversation.
"A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation" By Daniel Menaker. Twelve (Hachette Book Group), New York, 2010. 230 pages. $20.
You can’t take back cell phones. Nor can you staunch the e-mail avalanche. Facebook is, at least for now.
People worry about eye contact. Community. Brain function. Our children’s ability to string two thoughts together with a logical thread. Our electronics are literally remaking us, from our brain chemistry to our thumbs, plagued these days by repetitive motion issues.
A slew of writers have taken up pen, but more likely it’s the keyboard they’re using, to explore our radically and rapidly changing world. They’re advocates for saving society, celebrating everything from slow food to snail mail. Daniel Menaker, author and editor, has been thinking a lot about the qualities of good conversation. His new book, “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation,” is an entertaining, thought-provoking, at times irritating compendium that considers the history, the structure, the process, the value of conversation. If you’re tired of seeing only the tops of your kids’, your mate’s, your friends’ heads as they hang over their electronics, this book might give you fodder for a few stimulating conversations to jolt them out of their addictive behaviors and trance-like game states.
Menaker says that conversation is one of the most exclusive of all human behaviors. The average contemporary person spends 80 percent of his or her time in the company of others, and between six and 12 hours a day talking. And two-thirds of that time, we are engaged in self-disclosure, which happens to be one of the components of satisfying and meaningful talk. I wonder about these numbers because we so often bypass the phone and the face-to-face talk for texting and e-mailing and IM-ing. But we do multitask, which means we can text and talk and tweet simultaneously, sort of.
Menaker requires patience. He’s a bit obsessed with his worries of obsolescence, and his humor entertains as often as it strains. If I were his editor I’d have banned these words: geezer, old white guys and new-fangled. Yes, he’s rounded middle age, but geezer-dom is more about beliefs held than wrinkles worn. To that point, he at times involves himself with delineating gender differences, such as the way women tend to go on about ordering, tasting, sharing thoughts about food while men just want to get their food and eat it. I don’t deny gender differences, but when they are related as source of humor instead of fact, they tend toward subtle ridicule, and that is probably why he’s feeling like the geezer. He knows he harbors, still, the old ways.
Books, and by extension thinking, that piques extreme ambivalence are often the most fun to read. Menaker engages in an hour-and-a-half conversation with a young writer that he transcribes for us and then analyzes astutely and so candidly that almost all is forgiven by this reader. The talk reveals vulnerabilities on both sides and, on page 100, great stuff about how freelance writers should pitch editors. Writers take note.
Page 2 of 2 - Americans have long been criticized for their lack of conversational skills. Most polite of the critics Menaker quotes is Tocqueville: “An American cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation.” Menaker cautions that five minutes is the extreme time limit for holding forth. Talking from that point on pegs you as a bloviator. You must stop, listen and ask questions else you are destined to acquire a reputation as tiresome.
There is, according to Menaker, a CHI that characterizes good talk: curiosity, humor and most importantly impudence. Impudence is a certain “conversational nerve” that is pure of heart in that is comes from a lively, childlike curiosity and enthusiasm. Sarcasm, says Menaker, is for youth, for whom life has yet to become serious.
Getting e-mail produces certain pleasure-producing chemistry in the brain but so does good conversation. Oxytocin, the neurotransmitter secreted by both men and women, is produced during breastfeeding, orgasm and conversation. In the end, whether society is saved or not, may well depend on which of the pleasure chemicals wins out — those produced while gaming and texting or those produced while engaged in human unions including good, old-fashioned heart-to-hearts.
Rae Francoeur’s book “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” comes out in April. She can be reached at email@example.com, and you can find her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com.