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The art of conversation

There is something definitely amiss in modern forms of communication. There’s no harm in trying to find out what it is…

The art of conversation

Conversations address the basic human need to communicate. Their form may have changed over ages but conversations have continued to happen. Collectively, they have changed and evolved both humans and societies in many different ways. In fact, we have not stopped conversing even today, if nothing else then about the need to have a conversation.

More so because conversation is now more virtual than real, more impersonal than physical; there is a nostalgic longing for something that is lost, perhaps for good. We tend to think that technology took people away from ‘actual’ conversation. Another way of looking at it may be that, since the desire to have conversation is really strong, technology has allowed it to happen in other ways.

In a sense, this change is nothing new. The old, now vintage, telephone allowed at least two distant people to have a conversation. That was the end of the nineteenth century. Radio followed by television formalised and choreographed conversations, giving a chance to millions of people to become part of these as listeners. There must have been lamentations at the missing ‘live’ interaction then too, but technology and communications tools have not looked backwards ever since.

Modern forums of communication both allow and encourage a sort of self-promotion, and somewhat shamelessly, but that has not stopped conversation from taking place. To my mind, the biggest conversation that is happening now, across and within cultures, is between genders. A far cry from the ever-present gender-segregated drawing-room conversations, this one may lead to a better understanding of each other’s point of view and, hopefully, a more equitable world.

But there is something definitely amiss in the modern forms of communication that leaves people dissatisfied and there’s no harm in trying to find out what.

To begin with, there is problem in our relation with time, especially how we have exaggerated its significance. One cannot have meaningful conversations in frenzy. In fact, the real joy of conversation lies in sitting purposelessly, ignoring the clock. That is what leads people to actually evolve; and evolving doesn’t just mean becoming wise but also becoming empathetic. I read somewhere that the distinction between debate and conversation is that in debate argument is important while in  conversation people are important.

This is perhaps what is meant when they use the term “art of conversation”. You don’t just converse, you also listen. That is what makes conversation an art. But conversations are also about silence and learning to appreciate them. There is nothing ‘awkward’ about silence as we are so often told. It is in silence that the conversation with your own self takes place. And sometimes silence communicates more than words.

I have a feeling that etiquette and civility came from these kinds of conversations. The utter lack of etiquette and civility is another grouse that people have against all kinds of media in today’s world. The talk-show format on the conventional news media, obsessed with politics as it is, is what compensates for conversation. The emphasis remains on winning the argument and not on civility, ending up losing both and the viewer learning nothing.

The real joy of conversation lies in sitting purposelessly, ignoring the clock. That is what leads people to evolve; and evolving doesn’t just mean becoming wise but also becoming empathetic. I read somewhere that the distinction between debate and conversation is that in debate argument is important while in conversation people are important.

Then there is Twitter, touted as the most intellectual among social media, a place where serious conversations do or ought to take place. What we see instead is a mixture of self-promotion, journalism, argument, conversation, witty banter, blabbering and crude bullying. The problem is that you can’t deal with cyber bullies without becoming one yourself.

At times, it seems that respect and humility don’t work on Twitter as well as packs and cliques do. And of course time is of the essence. You must retort in real time, win the argument, and hence more followers. Digital conversations take place on other platforms too, including Instagram, where a certain number of followers lead you to become an “influencer”. Once you become an influencer, capital knocks at your door because now you can be used to reach the ‘target market’. Conversation as a career, anyone? It could be argued, and perhaps rightly so, that it always was; only the form has changed.

To be honest, I have always admired good conversationalists and marvelled at their skill that I know I could never emulate. Often, it’s that one person with an amazing story-telling quality, memory, observation and stellar skill to turn raw dust into gold.

Also read: The raconteur will win in the end

I’ve also had a chance to see groups of old friends, mostly engaged with literature but not always, sit together to have conversations over endless cups of tea. The late Intizar Husain, who spearheaded these sittings of the literati after the famous literary haunt Pak Tea House closed down, used to say “you can only have a conversation over tea while this is the age of food streets”.

I recall a few things from these meetings that struck me even then: no one ever became loud or angry; the oldies seemed to enjoy every word uttered. And even though they must have gathered and left at a particular hour, it appeared that time did not exist while they were together. Theirs was an unending conversation, as all others are too.

Farah Zia

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