(Photo and pottery by Jan Hammond: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Oxford dictionary definition of conversation is:
“A talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged”
Late Middle English (in the sense ‘live among, be familiar with’): from Old French converser, from Latin conversari ‘keep company (with’), from con– ‘with’ + versare, frequentative of vertere ‘to turn’.
Even from the 17th Century derivative, conversation is understood as being “with” others, engaged in an “exchange” of news and ideas. Implicit in our understanding, in order to engage in conversation, we would necessarily be “present” to another, aware, listening and open to exchange, able to be influenced. In effect, a true understanding of what is conversation presumes we have become accomplished in the enduring young adult competencies of intimacy and mutuality. Can this be achieved through Facebook, Text or Twitter?
The speed of social change has been so dramatic, we have not yet had time to step back to assess what the rapid change in technology means in our lives. Seeking personal affirmation from the virtual world in the number of Facebook “friends”, “likes”, shares and retweets, while satisfying in the short-term, may have longer term implications for our ability to deal with the difficulties and the possibilities of the real world.
Young adult tasks for all
Technology aside, for beneficial conversation we still need to develop competency in the young adult resources of intimacy and mutuality. Refreshing those skills from time to time helps draw us out of patterns of self-absorption and righteous authority as we get older and relationships change.
In their book, Christian Life Patterns, EE and JD Whitehead say flexibility and tolerance are important in developing and strengthening the resources of intimacy in the broader social context of close friendship, group solidarity, sexual love, social experiences of cooperation and competition, combative relationships, inspiring encounters with others and the experience of intuition from within oneself. Intimacy, the Whiteheads say, involves an overlapping of space, a willingness to be influenced and openness to the possibility of change. There is a risk in sharing. Only a strong and flexible identity can move towards true intimacy.
In developing competence in intimacy, we confront the need to reconcile the risk of being changed as we are drawn towards self-disclosure, perhaps coming to a different awareness of ourselves. Should we maintain a rigidly defined identity prone to isolation, mutuality essential to good conversation, becomes unlikely. Premature “identity foreclosure” of either too diffuse or too rigid personal identity leaves little room for self-exploration essential to achieving competence in intimacy required in a mature adult.
Information can be shared easily on Facebook, text and email. True enriching engagement with others, especially others beyond immediate peers, requires deeper personal development to enrich the present by drawing from elders and others to create a vision for the future and avoid errors of the past.
Conversation is more difficult in a post-truth world inhabited by Millenials, where communication is horizontal between peers, disconnected from less technically competent olds, who struggle to gain a level of competence with the iPads, emails and smart phones. Nowhere is post truth malaise more evident as in a study showing 62% Millennials believe socialism to be a preferable form of governance, as found in a recent in-depth survey of those born between the 1980’s to 2000.
Quite unbelievably few Millennials surveyed were aware of dictatorial communist and socialist leaders and their impact – Hitler, Mao, Lenin, Stalin and Pol Pot. Ignorance may be a function of educational focus on global warming, gender fluidity, #me and black arm band virtue signaling. Yet, rule under ‘fairer’ socialist ideals cost the lives of over 100 million people in the 20th Century, destroying the fabric of families, communities, economies and countries. Negative outcomes from socialism are recent enough for older people to remember the horrors, never to be revisited, despite the limitations of democracy and capitalism.
Socialism is merely one area Millennials’ might and power of communication competence tends to override the wisdom of previous experience. Rigid unwillingness to be open to the truth, limits growth to maturity and capacity for true engagement in meaningful conversation.
Not all conversations are deep and meaningful: casual exchange of information and arrangements form the bulk of conversations. However most of us have had the experience of coming away from a conversation disillusioned, disheartened or dismayed and wondered why, what happened?
For a conversation to be beneficial, elements that come into play to some degree include, and are not limited to:
- Presence – Participants in a conversation need to be present to one another, i.e. open and aware of others, rather than preoccupied with a particular device as in the illustration above, or impatient to get back to it. A woman who went to considerable effort to prepare a home cooked meal for her extended family swore “no more” after everyone attending was consumed with their devices and none showed interest in, or appreciation for, the meal or for each other. Co-dependence on technology has major negative impact on relationship quality and meaningfulness.
- Listening – It’s important to be predisposed to hear what others may have to say, open to hearing the end of the comment before jumping in with whatever may be on our mind.
- Honesty – Good communication builds on honesty and trust. We need to be humble and courageous enough to be honest, even if it means owning up to our own limitations.
- Pride – Pride of sensitivity tends to be affirmed as virtuous by the prevailing outrage industry, yet those who are easily offended suffer poor self-esteem, making it difficult to have a one-to-one conversation, unconsciously controlling what may be said to them and how. Those imbued with pride of authority tend to discourage alternative points of view that might be enlightening and enriching. Being the sole authority is hardly conducive to lively conversation. I have been turned off by people who have been unnecessarily accusing and bullying.
Reflecting on conversation’s essentials, we can see the importance of achieving competence in the young adult tasks of intimacy and mutuality, as well as refreshing those resources at other stages of life, if we are to be enriched in communication with others, technology aside.
We are all social beings who have an inborn need to mix with others. How well we do that depends on how well we converse, so it is worth putting some effort and consideration into improvement.
Respect for others also helps, regardless of their age, as everyone has a story. Fun, Friendship and Fellowship over 40 Years, a book produced by Di Perkins, proves as much. Di interviewed the remaining 40 women of a group of 80, who began meeting once a week 40 years ago. While at first the women were reluctant to share, Di’s willingness to listen carefully enabled gems of life stories to be captured that otherwise would have disappeared. Having been listened to and have their stories and precious photos brought to print has been an enriching and cohesive experience for them, even after so many years.
Others develop rules for enriching relationships. Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban maintain the spirit of their relationship by choosing not to text each other. All conversations are person-to-person, by phone or skin-to-skin, underpinning the importance of being present and truly listening.
Technology has also enriched our lives in so many ways. We are still trying to work out how to capitalise on the advantages while fostering healthy relationships and conversation. For technology to become a valuable servant, rather than a means of enslavement and co-dependence, we may need to marry the wisdom of the olds with the technical competence of the young. Conversation will help.