Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Quality of Conversation in America

The French love to talk. In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville refers to the “strange unsociability and reserved and taciturn disposition of the English”. But for Charles Dickens, another foreign visitor to America in the 19th century, it was the Americans who seemed taciturn. He blamed this on a “love of trade”, which limited men's interests and made them reluctant to volunteer information for fear of tipping their hand to a competitor. If you think about it, the idealization of silence is strong in American culture into the 20th century: for example, the laconic heroes of Western films, or of Hemingway's novels.

Conversation had always been important to the French. I love watching Eric Rohmer's films andthe complexities and beauties he finds in dialogue. Arguably the second golden age of conversation--the first was in Athens--happened with the French elites in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Historians associate the rise of conversation at this time with the prestige enjoyed by women in French high society, which was perhaps unique in Europe before or since. Women ran the salons where the culture of the time was created, and their presence civilized the men they invited there. Another factor was the leisure forced on the French aristocracy by an absolute monarchy. Their political ambitions thwarted, the upper classes turned their energies towards entertaining themselves. A man without conversation was liable to find himself devalued, whatever his other qualities: “In England it was enough that Newton was the greatest mathematician of the century,” wrote Jean d'Alembert, a French philosopher and mathematician; “in France he would have been expected to be agreeable too.”

Conversation was flourishing across the channel in England during the early 18th century, but for a different reason. This was the golden age of the British coffee house. Whereas the French salon excluded politics from polite conversation, in the British coffee house politics was a main preoccupation. It was most likely due to the fact that men ran the coffee houses in England that politics was openly discussed. Foreign visitors remarked both on the free range of speech there and on the mingling of classes and professions. A modern German sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, linked the coffee houses with what he called the “rise of a public space” outside the control of the state, or, as we might say now, civil society.

More recently it has been neither trade nor taciturnity, but the distractions of technology, which have seemed to threaten the quality of conversation. George Orwell complained in 1946 that “in very many English homes the radio is literally never turned off. This is done with a definite purpose. The music prevents the conversation from becoming serious or even coherent.”

Conversations over the internet are quite interesting. From the instant messaging between avatars on Second Life to the headset microphones in Counter Strike Source, we have found a way to talk to each other while sitting alone in a cold apartment room. An American essayist, Stephen Miller, published a book called “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art”, in which he worried that “neither digital music players nor computers were invented to help people avoid real conversation, but they have that effect.” A reviewer of Mr Miller's book found it “striking” that past generations would “speak of conversation as a way of taking pleasure, much as a modern American might speak of an evening spent browsing the internet”.

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