Tuesday, April 29, 2014


“Conversation, like certain portions of the anatomy, always runs more smoothly when lubricated.”

Marquis de Sade

CREATIVITY. I missed one rather crucial point when I was the listing the merits of being a good conversationalist yesterday. It is this: Really good conversation stimulates creativity (and, with luck, solves problems). It does so because it draws you out, encourages you to be at the top of your game, brings other perspectives' to the topic at hand, and offers—as always—the stimulus, challenge, and pleasure of interacting with other human beings. And, at its best, that is profoundly energizing. 

So why don’t meetings work better than they do? Possibly because the quality of dialog in many meetings isn’t very high—and all sorts of subtle factors come into play such as corporate culture, pecking order, politics, sexuality, and so on. Then there is the underlying fact that many organizational cultures—whether government, corporate, or academic—do not really encourage truly honest communication (a separate but important subject in itself).

THIS LISTENING THING. The essence of dialog is that we should listen to each other—and emerge from each conversation a little wiser. Are we good at listening? No—generally speaking we are terrible at it—and much more concerned with getting our point across. And the U.S. is a competitive, declarative culture where self promotion is the norm.

Listening is something of an art form. You want to encourage the other person to speak without either invading their personal space—or letting long silences mar the conversation. Companionable silences are fine—but you have to know someone fairly well for them to feel natural—or, paradoxically to be indifferent to them. If you have grown up with servants, as I have, you don’t feel obliged to engage them in conversation—and the unspoken rule is they don’t speak until spoken to. I was a waiter for several years while working my way through university so I have experienced both sides of that particular issue.

PROPAGANDA LIKES TO KEEP OUR MINDS CLOSED AND DISTRACTED. It is a great help to have an open mind, but we live in a society that devotes truly enormous resources to keeping it closed and distracted. In particular, a whole slew of words has been demonized—mainly by Republicans with the aid of that very smart man, Frank Luntz. I don’t agree with what he does, but I cannot but admire his talent. He also comes across on TV as extremely likable. He is also, I’m sad to say, hugely destructive because he is peddling ignorance—and this Great Nation is scarcely short of that.

THE DEMONIZATION OF LANGUAGE. It is a huge mistake to demonize a word or a phrase because it effectively blocks further dialog—or, at least, it’s a warning shot. The word ‘socialist’ is a good example of this. It has been my experience that if you praise socialism in any way in the U.S., people look at you with suspicion. Good grief! You might even be a communist.

SOCIALISM. The irony here is that most Americans don’t know what socialism is, that it is compatible with capitalism, that it comes in variations, and that it underpins most of the most successful economies in the world such as Germany, Austria, Holland, France, Sweden etc. In fact, it is currently delivering a higher standard of living than the American Business Model for all except the ultra rich.

SAVED FROM SOCIAL DAMNATION. My great flaw (I have many, but we are talking about conversation) is that I have little time for small talk—and tend to want to move on to issues in a world where a great many people don’t want to think about serious things like defense policy, or hunger or unemployment. Worse still, I have no interest in sport. However, I’m saved from social damnation by being genuinely interested in people—and I’ll talk to an attractive women (and I find most women attractive—regardless of age) any time, any place, about anything—including sports. 


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