Have we lost the art of conversation?

Sunday 23 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Cinema 3 Emotional Intelligence

In Association With:

Listen to this session at the bottom of this page.

Our personal interactions have never been quite so punctuated by technology. We’re flooded by work emails, constantly interacting with friends on social media, and engaging in political movements on Twitter – yet continually concerned that we don’t really talk to one another. We have never communicated as much as we do now, and yet we seem to hold actual conversations less and less. Nevertheless, every era has been concerned with conversation – the Greeks worried about Socrates’ conversations with the youths of Athens, the French Salon was preoccupied with social formality, and, more recently, the widespread adoption of the TV led to many announcements of the ‘death’ of conversation. We may spend more time using digital technology than before, but is there any reason to think that today’s forecasts of the end of conversation are any different, any more true, than previous ones?

In fact, concerns regarding conversation are not limited to technology. Authorities increasingly seek to formalise the way we talk to each other. Universities have established free-speech zones on campuses, effectively regulating where it’s acceptable to talk politics. Indeed, in many contexts, the old dinner table rule, not to discuss religion or politics, is writ large. Some feel reluctant to reveal where they stand on everything from the EU to transgender toilets, and prefer to stick to football or the weather. Anti-social behaviour zones in city centres regulate where preachers can preach and youths congregate to banter. Salford council has even tried to ban swearing in a swanky docklands development. And then there is the ‘talking cure’, whereby experts seek to harness the power of conversation for therapeutic purposes. Should we let it all out, or watch what we say?

Do all of these concerns – technological, political, and therapeutic – speak to a sense of unease as to what conversation is, and why we ought to value it? We worry about people being absorbed in iPhones, but do we have a clear sense of what we should be doing instead? Is it time to ask: ‘what is conversation for?’