Much has been said as to how a technology-driven reduction in our face-to-face interactions may be negatively impacting our physical health and mental happiness. In the absence of strong relationships, anxiety, depression, and likely certain diseases as well, have been on the upswing.
While the negative psychological and physiological effects which result from the loss of face-to-face conversation are worthy of continual cognizance, this trend begets another deleterious impact which goes overlooked: a diminishment in character.
While we often think of character as something that’s exclusively forged, if not in big crises, than in decisions with clear moral weight, it can in fact be developed in any of our ordinary, everyday activities. How we carry out everything we do, radiates effects both outwardly and inwardly. While this is true of any habit, it is particularly true of conversation. In fact, given its daily accessibility, its repeatability — allowing for practice, correction, refinement — and the numerous, varied virtues it calls upon and exercises, face-to-face conversation constitutes one of the best ways of training the human soul.
Below we illuminate the many qualities of character that can be built through active, effortful participation in conversation:
The behaviors we must summon to engage in a conversation happen with so little conscious awareness, that it can be easy to miss the extent to which they require strenuous self-control.
We must check our body language and facial expressions, demonstrating interest and friendliness, and avoiding eye rolls, inappropriate looks of shock, disgust, or boredom, and postures that read as closed-off, nervous, or defensive. We must watch what we say, abstaining from non-sequiturs, excessive negativity and complaints, gossip, and inadvertent insults to the person to whom we are speaking and those they know. We must keep ourselves from saying things that are thoughtless, whether literally, as in devoid of meaning, or in the sense of wounding another’s feelings. We must listen attentively and react appropriately to what the other person says, trying to hit the right tone and content in our responses. We must choose our words carefully, articulate them well, and talk neither too fast nor too slow.
All in all, a good conversation takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline! (Which is why, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you can feel quite fatigued after a night of socializing.) On the path to self-mastery, face-to-face dialogues are an underrated tool.
Conversation is a singular exercise in being present in the moment. To engage it fully you must shut down the distractions of the outside world and disentangle from devices. To listen attentively to another, you must continually bring the mind back to the present each time it wanders. You must commit to the idea that there is nowhere else you’d rather be, than right there, right then, with this other person.
A Bias Towards Effort and Action
It’s easy to be the person who waits for others to make the first move, who hopes someone else will come up and start talking to him. It’s easy too, especially in a group, to hang back, only half-listening, and let others do the conversational heavy lifting — to let others introduce all the topics and think of questions to ask.
We sometimes excuse these passive behaviors as shyness or introversion, when really they are the hallmarks of passivity or outright laziness. E.g., we say we can’t remember what someone told us about X because we have a poor memory, when in truth, we actually didn’t listen well enough.
A good conversationalist isn’t idle or inert; he’s an initiative taker. He realizes that like any other worthwhile endeavor, conversation takes work. Rather than waiting for a great discussion to happen, he sets one in motion and injects the energy that keeps it going.
If good conversation requires a bias towards action, it also necessitates a mastery of reaction.
In the give and take of conversation, each partner offers responses that address and build on what the other person says, and the deftness of those responses can only grow out of attentive listening. One cannot perform such dialed-in listening in a state of stress and anxiety — you cannot attend to what the other person is saying, if you are attending to an emotional maelstrom within. Anxiety will make your words jumpy, awkward, rushed, and/or mumbled. A good conversationalist must therefore learn to quiet his nerves.
Even if not stressed in socializing, a calm, cool composure is needed to keep one’s responses measured when the other person says things that may feel insulting, anger-inducing, jealousy-producing, or simply differ significantly from one’s own views. The ability to receive whatever someone says with unruffled poise and stoic equanimity makes one unafraid to enter into any kind of dialogue, with any kind of person.
A disdain for small talk is often cloaked in a contempt for the superficial, but in fact finds its roots in a less flattering form of pride. It’s the same manifestation of ego that wants to skip the less exciting early phases of any new endeavor, in order to jump right into its more interesting depths. Like the man who eschews starting at the bottom rung of a job in order to work his way up, the man who spurns small talk thinks that such “menial” conversation is beneath him.
The good conversationalist knows that the development of any pursuit starts with the basics, with gaining a grasp of the fundamentals. He doesn’t feel he is too good for chit-chat; he is willing to start small, and patiently let the talk grow bigger.
Powers of Observation
The landscape of conversation is surprisingly rich, diverse, and nuanced. There is much to notice as you journey through its contours: the places where you and the other person connect, and disagree; the topics he finds most animating to talk about; the pauses, hesitations, and subtle changes in tone that emphasize or belie the words spoken, or disclose a tremor of meaning left unexpressed; a reference mentioned in passing that points to a revelation he’d like to divulge, but is having trouble surfacing directly.
He who would turn a discussion into a deeper exploration, a conversation into a curious investigation, must be a good detective: he must keep his eyes and ears highly attuned, listen in the spaces between the “notes,” decipher clues most others would miss. He who would learn the art of conversation, also develops the art of noticing.
When we talk only about ourselves, and fail to ask the other person anything about themselves — when we boorishly interrupt, hardly allowing someone else to get a word in edgewise, and failing to listen to them when they do — conversation can be just another platform for expressing one’s narcissism.
But done properly, as a true exchange, few things can get us outside ourselves like conversation can. It allows a space in which you can cultivate real interest in others. The good conversationalist is animated by questions like: How can I understand this person better? How can I put them at ease? What feelings and experiences underlie this disclosure? What are they really trying to say? The good conversationalist willingly cedes the floor and spotlight in order to answer these questions. He is able to curb the need to interject, and to turn every subject back to himself. The good conversationalist transcends ego-absorption to notice, highlight, and engage the ideas of another. Free from feelings of jealousy or insecurity, he recognizes, appreciates, and compliments the strengths that are surfaced as another person speaks.
Conversation is a skill, an arena for proficiency and strategy, like chess.
Conversation is also an art, a cooperative act of creativity, like dance.
Conversational partners must flow together, hit the right notes, move to a harmonic music of their own composing.
Like the members of an orchestra, the participants in a conversation build something together that they could not create apart. The collision of energies within this collective combinator generates fresh, life-giving feelings, meanings, insights, and ideas.
It’s no coincidence that the places and periods in which conversation has been most celebrated — whether within the agoras of ancient Greece or the salons and coffeehouses of 18th century Europe — have also produced much of history’s most original thinking and philosophy.
Every step into conversation is a step into the unknown. How will it go? Will it result in connection? Intimacy? Embarrassment? Hostility?
It’s by reason of this unpredictability that as we approach the threshold of a conversation — especially one with weight — we feel anxiety, even fear. And it is for this reason that crossing that threshold, knowing not where it will lead, takes courage.
Curiosity and Openness
Every person is like a tiny sovereign country, a micro culture, a world onto themselves. And the passport to visiting these territories is conversation.
Every person has something to teach us, if we approach them with openness and curiosity. Because every person has had different experiences, and filters the world through them, each can give us a different angle on life. These may be educated factoids or profound insights, or, they may be subtle mindset shifts on the forces shaping humanity, the struggles folks are up against, and why people think the way they do.
The fact that we can learn from everyone with whom we converse applies not just to new acquaintances, but friends and family members we have known for years and even decades. Unfortunate is the common habit of believing we know everything there is to know about our long-time associates. Fortunate is a dedication to keeping relationships fresh — to remaining perennially curious and ever seeking new secrets, revelations, opinions, and desires — no matter how long we’ve known someone.
Engaging another in conversation is a gift. You offer a listening ear, interest, humor, encouragement, warmth, compassion. You give your time and energy, your presence and bandwidth, your body and mind. You give the resource for which people today feel most starved: attention.
Engaging in conversation is an act of hospitality. No matter the location or circumstances, one takes on the role of host, imparting a sense of welcome, putting others at ease, helping them come home, to themselves.
It is easy to think we are cool, confident, and charming when we’re by ourselves. It is easy to think our ideas are indisputably brilliant when they’ve only been sounded within the confines of our own minds.
When we interact with our fellow humans, however, we realize we are other than what we thought. We realize we are not as smooth and secure as we like to imagine. That we are more lazy, distracted, and self-absorbed than we supposed. We find that opinions which seemed crystal clear in our heads, emerge as a confused jumble when we attempt to articulate them. Our seemingly bulletproof ideas turn out to have some very airy holes.
Conversations can be uncomfortable because they challenge the inflated self-perception we form in seclusion. Our conversational partner serves as a sounding board, which allows us to hear our own thoughts more clearly in the reverberation. Our partner acts as a mirror, which allows us to see our flaws more clearly in the reflection.
Listening well to someone else requires not using the time in which they speak to think about what you are going to say when they’re through, and instead focusing entirely on their words.
That means when it is your turn to talk, you have but a moment to gather your thoughts, before offering a coherent response. It is then impossible to know exactly what you’re going to say before you say it. You make it up as you go along. You improvise.
The materials we have at our disposal in “jerry-rigging” the content of the response depend on preparation: the reflections we’ve taken time for beforehand, the ideas we’ve contemplated in advance, the manners we’ve practiced previously.
The extemporaneous delivery of said content depends on confidence — a comfort with riding the flow, a faith in leaping without looking.
Rightly Ordered Loves
Saint Augustine argued that virtue is essentially having your loves in the right order, while sin is allowing them to be disordered. Conversation is an excellent way of ensuring you have prioritized them correctly.
When you fully tune into a conversation, you show that you love your friend more than you love your digital device.
When you refrain from sharing juicy gossip as you talk, you show that you love integrity more than status.
When you set aside out-of-office work to have a conversation with your spouse, you show that you love relationships more than money.
People rarely change as the result of being lectured. A direct haranguing produces defensiveness rather than transformation.
Within the less guarded flow of a conversation, however, something you say can strike another with meteoric impact. Indeed, sometimes a single conversation can change the entire direction of someone’s life.
Sometimes we can offer someone a fresh angle on an old problem. Other times, we merely remind them of something they once knew, but had forgotten, or felt, but couldn’t articulate.
Often the influence we wield through conversation comes not in the form of catalyzing dramatic light bulb insights, but enacting a steady process wherein the positive language we speak, and the ideals which undergird it, slowly bring out the goodness in another. Each conversation is a chance to leave someone better than we found them. If the world changes at all, it changes one conversation at a time.
Have you ever felt your anger at someone progressively swell in the space when you were apart? The more you ruminated about them, and the wrong they had done you, the more your seething grew. Yet, when you finally saw this person face-to-face, and looked in their eyes, your anger melted away. The one-dimensional abstraction you had created of them in your mind, where all you could see was their flaw, was again replaced with a multi-faceted figure; the positive memories you share, their numerous good qualities, your feelings of affection, reasserted themselves.
Such is the power of empathy, a power activated an order of magnitude greater when we interact in person rather than at a distance. Up close, we recognize the commonalities in our hopes, fears, and struggles. We recognize that other people are just trying to make it in this mixed-up world, the same way we are. Thanks to “mirror neurons,” we actually feel what the other person feels. As a result, we experience a sense of patience and compassion that overrides the misunderstandings and unfair characterizations that arise when we only communicate digitally, if at all.
In communicating at a distance, we can lose not only our empathy for others, but sight of their very humanity. We come to see people as means rather than ends in themselves, as objects to be used, manipulated, discarded.
When we talk on our phone, while nominally interacting with a cashier, we treat them as an automaton.
When we sit next to someone at a party without saying a word, we treat them as indistinguishable from a house plant.
When we break up with someone via text, we treat them as a tool used only for pleasure.
Conversely, when we chat with the cashier, we see them as a creature of flesh-and-blood, with hopes, dreams, feelings, and life outside this role and that name-tagged smock.
When we make a comment about the weather to our fellow party guest, we acknowledge that we share the same reality.
And when we break up with someone face-to-face, we recognize them as a multifaceted human being, with whom we are not only willing to share mutual enjoyment, but mutual discomfort.
When we make room in our schedule, space in our bandwidth, to converse with another, we fulfill the most basic of human needs: to be recognized, acknowledged, seen. We en-value people with our words. We ensoul them with our attention.
With all the above qualities, the arrows of conversation work both ways.
Cultivating inner decorum leads to outward decorum. Generosity of spirit leads to generosity of speech. A well-ordered mind leads to a well-ordered exchange.
At the same time, as conversations call upon qualities of patience and courage, effort and creativity, humility and influence, these virtues are honed through practice.
Conversation then both requires character, and refines it. Available to us daily, such exercise strengthens the soul of the individual, and the heart of society. The health of family, town, state, and country, ultimately emerges from the skill and art, the power and pleasure, of one-on-one exchanges.