Modern society is notably sociable in temper. Hermits have long been out of fashion. When guidebooks wish to praise a city, they point to its number of bars and clubs. We're all meant to know how to keep a conversation going. Having no friends is one of the greater remaining taboos.
Yet it is striking how bad most of us are at having a conversation, chiefly because we insist that knowing how to talk to other people is something we are born with, rather than an art dependent on the acquisition of a range of odd and artificially acquired skills. We rightly accept that improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes and as a result, the market is flooded with television programmes and books promising to take us through the intricacies of assembling aubergine paté or poached pears. But we show no such caution and modesty when it comes to conversation. Here we blithely assume that all will go well, so long as the place settings are attractive and the soup warm. Yet the great majority of conversations we have are rather stale - and it generally remains a mystery how, every now and then, they become more worthwhile, that is, more fun than reading a book or a magazine. Finding oneself in a good conversation is rather like stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night - and then never knowing how to get back there in daytime.
Why do conversations go wrong? Shyness has a lot to answer for. We get scared of opening our souls because we falsely exaggerate the difference between ourselves and others. We imagine that others don't share in our vulnerabilities or interests. We display only our strengths - and hence become boring, for it is typically in the revelation of our weaknesses, in our display of our mortality in all its dimensions, that people grow sympathetic. It's almost impossible to be bored when people tell you what they are scared of or whom they desire. Hence dinner party shyness is both one of the most modest and the most egocentric of emotions. Modest because it's born out of an acute and touching sense of one's shortcomings and peculiarity; and egocentric because it's based on an exaggeration of how different other people are. Like the paranoid person, the shy one imagines that all eyes in the room are on him or her. The shy person needs to discover how much they have in common with the rest of humanity.