I love to engage in conversation. Not chit-chat, not gossip, not mundane chatter, but real conversation. Real conversations delve into topics that require questions and answers and discussion and even debate. Real conversations explore who we are and who we want to be. They reveal how we perceive the world.
Conversations are dangerous, though, because they can reveal fear and weakness and vulnerability. For that reason, many people…perhaps most people…retreat from engaging in meaningful conversation. For them, conversations are uncomfortable. Engaging in conversations can expose more about a person than the person wishes to reveal. Honest conversations can puncture the rigid facades we build to protect ourselves from real or perceived threats to our emotional well-being. So, some people are reticent to reveal themselves; they tend to deeply fear conversations. Those same people, and probably many others who are more willing to take risks, shrink from conversations in which questions cross personal boundaries; those boundaries may be political or moral or religious…whatever they are, they tend to poison the potential for conversation. Real conversations may treat sensitivities gingerly, but they recognize no boundaries.
For all these reasons, I believe meaningful conversations can take place only in two ways: 1) face-to-face, in which the parties to the conversation can see one anothers’ expressions and can hear tone and inflection and can perceive the quiver in another’s voice and; 2) in extended written form, in which the parties demonstrate their interest in the topics and (more importantly) in the participants by writing comments and questions and encouraging responses in kind.
I love the written word, but it pales in comparison to face-to-face discussions as a means of enabling real conversations to take place. In a world in which many conversations must take place over long distances, or not at all, the written word is a savior; it allows conversations to survive.
As much as I use and appreciate technology as a means of communication, instant and near-instant technologies like email and chat and telephone are inadequate for the task of enabling real conversation. Conversation requires understanding, it requires communication that cannot take place in the absence of emotion, expressed and conveyed. Email and chat and even telephone hide or disguise or transform emotions into weapons, at worst, or lifeless baggage, at best. While the written word can do the same, in the hands of someone who cares about the conversation the written word is up to the task; it may require the investment of more time and more energy and more emotional currency, but it is most definitely up to the task. Telephone “conversations,” in my view, are not truly conversations; they lack the depth and intensity of real conversations and frequently they mask the emotions that are so important to understanding the communications that take place in real conversations.
Some of my most treasured memories are of conversations I had with friends many, many years ago. I recall one evening, while I was back at my parents’ house for a long weekend break from college, sitting with my friend Paul Williams, drinking beer and talking about the problems facing humankind and the world in general. We stayed up until almost dawn, talking about finding solutions to the the ills that confronted humankind. We reached agreement on an approach to problem-solving we felt certain would work to solve any problem, regardless of scope and regardless of topic. By the time we parted company, we were deliriously happy to have come up with THE solution. We tested in on our own lives, identifying problems we encountered every day; it worked. We tested it on global problems, such as famine; it worked. We tested it on social problems, such as poverty; it worked. The next day, we spoke again and both of us recalled very specifically that we had found THE solution; unfortunately, neither of us could recall precisely what it was. The moral to that story is this: beer can stimulate conversation, but too much beer can erase some of the most important parts. Seriously, that conversation took place; and the results are real…of course, the solution may not have been real, but the excitement of hour upon hour of conversation was real and the memory stays with me.
One of the things about conversations that appeals to me is that conversations always take place about topics that matter. Really matter. The topic may appear mundane on the surface, but to the participants in the conversation, it is nothing of the sort. Whether the topic is global warming or brewing beer or losing weight or cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, conversations explore things that are important to people. One of the differences between conversations and chit-chat, in my view, is that conversations don’t skirt around the uncomfortable elements of an issue. Conversations tackle topics all the way to their core. And, unlike chit-chat, conversations are not pep-rallies for participants’ points of view. A political “conversation” among people who share the same philosophies and political perspectives is chit-chat; it is not a conversation. Conversations are educational. They illuminate.
The inspiration for this post came from a short, but illuminating, conversation that began earlier today with my friend, Juan. He brought illumination to a topic that needed light and he reminded me how important it is for thinking people to do more than think. We need to have real conversations.