In praise of conversation

Ever had a conversation with someone where it was only when you talked with them, that you understood your true feelings on a particular subject?

Probably not in Sydney, because most conversations go like this: "Seen the surf?" "How much rent you pay there?" "Man, this 22-year-old I'm rooting is gonna kill me" or "I just have this feeling like it's going to be a boy".

You can cycle through those four topics and add in how a person's doing at their job, whether they need to get fit, how homeopathy works and how awesome their recent holiday was, and you're just about through dinner/coffee/a round of beers and it's time to go home.

Sometimes, however, you'll get lucky and meet a person whose discourse is conversational rather than expository. In other words, they just don't sit there and tell anecdotes or stories about themselves, they engage in to-and-fro dialogue.

This is no guarantee the conversation will be any good but, to my mind, it's a step up from listening to a reading from the Book of Dave. 

However, if you luck into a conversation with someone who's wise or learned on a particular topic and who pushes you to order and clarify your thoughts, you might have an experience described by the great English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon:

Whoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another; he tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshaleth them more orderly; he seeth how they look when they are turned into words; finally, he waxeth wiser than himself; and that more by one hour's discourse than by a day's meditation.

Interestingly, quite a few studies have lighted on the necessity of mastering expository dialogue in modern schooling.

"Expository discourse is often required in educational, social, and vocational contexts, as when a high school student is asked to interpret the outcome of an historical event, describe methods to control global warming, or teach others how to operate a new cell phone," wrote Marilyn A. Nippold and J. Bruce Tomblin in a study published in 2008 in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

"The complexity of these topics suggests that successful explanations require sophisticated language skills and specialized background knowledge," they wrote.

Still, if you've ever had to sit through a dinner where someone holds court, prattling on about a pet subject, you'll know it seldom makes for satisfying conversation.

There are few people of which we could speak as Jacobean playwright and poet Ben Johnson did of Bacon:

"No man, ever spoke more neatly, more (com)pressedly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of its own graces. His hearers could not cough or look aside from him without loss. He commanded where he spoke. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest that he should make an end."

It is thus fair to say that a mastery of expository discourse is but a pit stop on the journey to becoming a good conversationalist, for only through the opposition of ideas and the oscillation between their extremes do we meaningfully form an opinion on the issues that matter.

Talking at somebody rarely proves anything.

As another great thinker once said: It is "as a mirror: If an ass looks in you cannot expect an angel to look out."

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Please don't take it personally if I do not reply to your email as they come in thick and fast depending on the topic. Please know, I appreciate you taking the time to write and comment and would offer mummy hugs to all.