CONVERSATION is a human art of great importance in which people indulge everywhere. This exclusive human activity called ‘conversation’ didn’t start as particularly shaped or aesthetical. No one knows how language began but that hasn’t stopped anyone from speculating about the matter. In case the reader does not know, as this reviewer didn’t either, the study of the origin of language is called glottogony. But language is not conversation and conversation is what is being discussed in the book. It could be possible that language and speech preceded conversation by thousands of years.
Conversation contains pragmatic information and pure expressions of emotions and so on, but for the author of this book, real conversation includes thoughts and ideas and reactions that are not simply reflexive and have no immediate practical use. The main part of a conversation, particularly with a new acquaintance, establishes some kind of common ground. In the rare event it doesn’t, the whole meeting will turn out to be a failure. Finding that common ground and then moving beyond, often has two stages. The first is the survey in which the people involved discuss some important aspects of their identities.
The author, an American who has won the O Henry Prizes for two of his books, helps the reader navigate the shallows, reefs, gorges and open seas of conversation. He has a very free and humorous style of writing which helps to maintain the reader’s interest despite the topic being rather mundane. After discussing the origin of language and social talk, he does a hilarious talk on the most exclusively human of all activities (along with the calculus), explaining how good conversation works. A conversation should be easy and not in the least dogmatic – “it should have the spice of wit. And the one who engages in conversation should not debar others from participating in it, as if he were entering a private monopoly…”
The author addresses the deeper concerns that underlie conversations and their common social dilemmas and opportunities, ranging from insults to instant messaging from dating to dinner ordering, from the value of humour to the handling of hubris. A conversation usually begins with the affairs of the home, or politics, or the practice of the profession and learning. Accordingly, if the talk begins to drift off to other channels, pains should be take to bring it back again to the matter in hand – but with due consideration to the company present, “for we are not all interested in the same things at all times or in the same degree.” We must also observe “how far the conversation is agreeable and as it has a reason for its beginning, so there should be a point at which to close it tactfully.”
(Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017; www.hachettebookgroup.com)