What makes a great conversationalist? When a man was so described to me (by a woman) I asked wherein lay his success? On what topics did he so shine as to merit her accolade? She could not remember. Indeed she could recall only three words he ever uttered. They were, "Really? How interesting."
We are said to be losing the art of conversation. It is dying in a hell's kitchen of mobile phones, Blackberries, I-pods, emails, sound bites, chat shows and drinks parties. There it joins other civilities regularly pronounced dead, such as well-mannered teenagers, the tomato and the novel. Nowadays no one converses. People shout and text.
So proclaims the social historian, Stephen Miller, in his new study, "Conversation: History of a Declining Art". If he is right we are heading back from the heights of stimulating human intercourse to E.M.Forster's stone-age story-teller, whose "gaping audience of shockheads was kept awake only by suspense." If he lost their attention they killed him as useless. Scheherazade had the same problem. Story-telling, however good, is only half of conversation.
Miller starts with Socrates, Plato and Cicero, who first noted that free conversation, because transient and uncensorable, was the essence of free speech. It was always a threat to authoritarianism. Hence its fascination for the Enlightenment. To Montaigne it was intellectual callisthenics, the "fruitful and natural exercise of the mind" as opposed to the "languid, feeble motion" of reading. To Swift, Johnson, Hume and the 18th-century essayists, conversation was the social lubricant of the club and the coffee-house. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Mrs Thrale showed how its unpredictable informality enabled women to outshine men in society. Conversation became a euphemism for sex.
Historians of culture saw this golden age as destroyed by intrusive innovative. Cheap books and newspapers discouraged talk. Victorian observers deplored that fact that better home lighting led people to read instead of speak. As a result De Tocqueville ascribed to the English "a strange unsociability, reserved and taciturn". By the 20th-century Orwell was convinced that radio and other "solitary mechanical amusements" spelled the death of conversation. By the time of Virginia Woolf it was surrounded by convention. She declared that a brilliant remark at tea should be treated "as an accident, like a fit of sneezing or a catastrophe with a muffin". To Rebecca West conversation was an illusion, "a noise of intersecting monologues".
So Miller is not the first to note a decline in this most cerebral of delights. He sees a threat to conversation in every cultural trend, from political correctness declaring words and subjects taboo to the counter-culture of the Sixties and its opposing obsession with authenticity, egotism and "letting it all hang out". Does Eminem do conversation, asks Miller? It is lost amid the cacophony of anger, attitude, rap and satire. When the American vice-president, Dick Cheney, was challenged by a colleague to conversational repartee on the floor of the Senate, he was at a loss. In that great deliberative chamber, echoing with the ghosts of rhetoric and hard by the mighty Library of Congress, this Jupiter could only mutter, "Go fuck yourself!" It was, wrote the columnist Russell Baker, "a total language failure experience."
Because conversation requires a small mental effort technology has produced what Miller calls "conversation avoidance devices". Talking to strangers is considered weird so the wise traveller has an I-pod or mobile phone permanently clamped to the ear. Interactive games replace human contact with the virtual sort, as texting and emailing replace old-fashioned telephoning. While this may revive the once-doomed letter, emails and their "flares" (insulting words un-nuanced because not spoken) are a poor substitute for talk. The Washington Post reported a family of six whose house contained, among other gadgets, nine televisions, six computers, six cell phones, three stereos and two DVD players. Its members rarely met, wolfing down their food to return to their electronic cocoons. To them conversation was something broadcast, an ersatz exchange of one-liners on a chat show, "the sound of two egos talking".
In such a world people congregate not to converse but to project themselves. At meetings, in pubs or drinks parties, participants are in monologue mode, awaiting their turn to perform. There is time only for a clever quip before being interrupted. This is no work-out in Montaigne's mental gymnasium, let alone what the philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, called an "unrehearsed intellectual adventure". Even the new fad for reading groups and 'conversaziones' (significantly a foreign word) implies that conversation is so disconcerting as to require the formality of a venue and an agenda. We are all victims of conversation fright.
Miller is not a total pessimist. He quotes Hume, that "the propensity to company and society is strong in all rational creatures". I think he grossly underrates Hume's insight. Who would have predicted a quarter century ago that the passive act of watching television would be supplanted by the more active one of electronic interchange. We seem to be in perpetual conversation. The zombie army wandering London's streets mouthing into space is conversing. The phone is no longer what it was to my parents, the means for some rushed emergency message. It is conversation. And what is a blog but a digital coffee-house, lacking only respect for Swift's maxim that nothing kills conversation like a bore?
The 18th-century may have been the high point of this art. But succeeding generations have shown no diminution in the human intimacy that is the essence of good talk. Young people congregating in the park or outside a pub always seem to me to be in animated discourse. The dinner party, the long walk, the weekend, the holiday still demand conversational skills. The booming restaurant is a stage-set for discourse as well as gastronomy (though I once asked Terence Conran why his restaurants were so noisy and he said it was because young people were nervous of talking).
The rules of conversational etiquette have not changed over the centuries. Since Cicero experts have advised never to converse with too many because, as Swift said, "in much company, few listen". They tell us to be brief to avert tedium and interruption; avoid anecdote; refer to others but not oneself; be eager to listen and ready to change one's mind; above all respect rules of politeness. When Dr Johnson found himself at dinner with his hated foe, Wilkes, his regard for his host required him to tame his anger and talk, eventually quite enjoying the discourse. This discipline, the subjugation of anger to social ritual, is key to the exhilarating, serendipitous, controlled anarchy that is good conversation.
Concluding his history of western civilisation, Kenneth Clark searched for its essence and found it in this quality of courtesy. He called it "the ritual by which we avoid hurting each other's feelings by satisfying our own egos." Throughout history courtesy had granted human beings the confidence to interact creatively and thus scale the ladder of genius. Each generation rightly regards this ritual as sacred, and fears for its future. For the present it seems in good health.