It’s Good to Talk

We should introduce menus for conversation at dinner parties to make the evening come alive

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.

So what can be done to help liberate us? We need to learn some manners. The suggestion could sound archaic. There’s a well-worn tradition of mocking the fancy dinner party. It’s often pointed out that as people’s manners become exquisite, their interactions become ever more stilted. Yet history shows that conversations grow interesting and sincere precisely at the moment when people accept a little artificiality in the proceedings. We need prescriptions and rules to get us to the natural and raw parts of our characters. Consider the record of the greatest conversation in the Western tradition, Plato’s Symposium. The evening is as minutely choreographed as a piece of theatre. A group of intellectual Athenians takes it in turns to deliver discourses on the nature of love while eating a banquet, featuring olives and seafood. A close eye is kept on the clock. People are asked to define their terms and avoid unnecessary digressions. There is no mention of the weather. The guests know they have come together to illuminate an intellectual concern and their conversation therefore has a direction. There is a sense of where the talk is going, the hosts are keen to give their guests the greatest of dinner-party gifts: some ideas to take home with them.

It was to the ancient Greeks that the French aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie looked when they began to hold their famous salons in 18th-century Paris. Fed up with the idle chatter of the court at Versailles, where the talk centred relentlessly on who had shot what and in which forest, they wanted to make their homes into the spiritual descendants of Socrates’s dining room. One of the greatest salon hostesses of the period, Sophie de Condorcet, wrote down a touching set of rules for a successful evening of conversation. She believed that guests had to arrive with a number of conversational topics and explore them with the same rigour as a scholar in a library, except that rather than consulting books, it was the other guests that were to provide the insights. Examples of fitting topics included: what are the duties of children to their parents? What is the wisest way to approach one’s own death? Can governments make us good or only obedient?

The topics may not precisely fit the agenda of early 21st-century men and women, but the logic behind Madame de Condorcet’s approach is still valid, namely that we need to plan a little in order to have a good conversation. A few years back the academic Theodore Zeldin, who has written extensively on 18th-century France, tried to raise the art of conversation in our own times when he began a series of public meals in Oxford. Groups of strangers came together and, under his gentle but firm direction, agreed to lay aside their inhibitions and explore experiences, ideas, regrets and aspirations. Zeldin provided diners with a specially-designed conversation menu that he thought would help people get the most from talking to a stranger. It started by getting diners to look at questions like: “Which of my ambitions is likely to remain unfulfilled?” or “Is sex overrated?”

The questions certainly sound surprising and even shocking. We’d almost never dare to bring up such matters with a stranger. Instead, we’d tiptoe delicately around neutral topics found in the media, frightened of causing offence, while ignoring the fact that most of us are really looking for an exchange of vulnerable material. So afraid are we of sounding odd, that we instead too readily accept boredom. In the process, we condemn an evening to sterility.

We should be braver. An evening comes alive when we meet people who seem to express our very own thoughts, but with a clarity and psychological accuracy we could not match. They know us better than we know ourselves. What was shy and confused within us, is unapologetically and cogently phrased in them, our pleasure at the meeting indicating that we have found a piece of ourselves, a sentence or two built of the very substance of which our own minds are made, a congruence all the more striking if we have only just made acquaintance. We feel grateful to these strangers for reminding us of who we are. Our embarrassments, our sulks, our feelings of guilt, all these phenomena may be conveyed in a way that affords us a sense of vivid self-recognition. The dinner party companion has located words to depict a situation we thought ourselves alone in feeling, and for a few moments, we are like two lovers on an early dinner date thrilled to discover how much they share (and so unable to do more than graze at the food in front of them).

We should be more demanding of our social lives. Rather than seeing a successful encounter as a rare gift, we should expect to engineer one regularly. The history of conversation suggests that it’s when there are heavy-handed rules around that our spirit can best be set free. We may be tempted to giggle at the artificiality of a conversation menu, or the pretentiousness of Madame de Condorcet’s dinner parties – and yet we should welcome them for helping us get to the elusive, spontaneous and sincere bits of ourselves.

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