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Good Night, Chat

These days a good talk can be hard to find. We asked an expert how people can stay connected in ways that truly matter.

Daniel Menaker began to fear for the future of conversation at his own dinner table: "Some friends were over and our talk was peppered with '24/7,' 'pushing the envelope,' and 'at the end of the day,' " the 68-year-old New York editor recalls. "It made me a little insane to realize that business clichés had invaded my personal relationships."

It also made him something of a dialogue doctor, intent on assessing the health and well-being of conversation in the land. His diagnosis, laid out in A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, may hearten or deflate you—possibly both—but never again will you think of chat as a trivial affair. "We can enrich our lives by understanding the great rewards of good conversations," Menaker says. "In finding out who the person we're talking to is, we find out who we are."

Intrigued by the book's utopian premise—that "every time people talk together in a social and mutually gratifying way, the world becomes a better place"—I invited the author of A Good Talk to sit down for, well, a good talk. Here's what he had to say:

Allan Fallow:  You say the three ingredients of a good talk are "curiosity, humor, and impudence." So I'm curious to know what got you thinking about conversation, and impudent enough to ask what made you think you could build a book around it?

Daniel Menaker:  I suppose a lifetime of conversation got me interested in the topic. My mother and father were very verbal, and our table was filled with words as well as food. So even as a kid, I got used to the notion of exchanging ideas. I was brought up to be a talker—and  to be a listener, I hope.

There was also psychoanalysis. I cut that story out of the book, but I entered it in a very classical way in my early thirties, after the trauma of my older brother's death [of septicemia, following a routine knee surgery]. That got me interested in the subtexts of conversation—my own, and other people's.

To me, therapy and analysis are going inward in order to go outward. There's no point bathing in your own neuroses. But therapy taught me to listen to myself—and to other people regarding what they really cared about. People are always communicating things other than what they say explicitly. Anyone can see that—but analysis helped me read between the lines. Additionally, my experience [as a book and magazine editor] in helping people find out what they really want to say made me feel equipped, I suppose, to write about conversation.

AF: In the book you write, "I worry that fewer and fewer people know the pleasures and benefits of true conversation." Did something about the current state of popular culture—other than the obvious symptoms of people mesmerized by BlackBerries, cell phones, and iPods—trigger that observation?

DM: I think the extreme business orientation of the Reagan era—that sort of intense, fervid capitalism—has conspired with our recent financial debacles to infiltrate ordinary conversations with "business-y" language. That strikes me as regrettable.

I also had the sense that business clichés were becoming catch phrases—modular pieces of language that we simply plug into a conversation. And that dynamic bugged me so much it became an impetus for the book.

It's related to "first-name-ism"—that "faux-familiar" approach you get from telemarketers.

AF: I confess to getting irked the same way. When a customer service rep calls me "Allan," I'm tempted to stop them in their tracks and say, "Excuse me—did you and I hang out in high school? Because otherwise where do you get off calling me 'Allan'?"

DM: Not even "Al"?

AF: That would really push me over the edge. "If I'm paying you money, I want to be 'Mr. Fallow' to you!"

DM: I understand your reaction—people of a certain age have an emotional objection to that. But it's also a lost resource—a lost elocution that you can use to calibrate how close you're going to be to somebody. It gives you a way to get to know somebody in stages, rather than—

AF: Let me interrupt you there—

DM: Sure.

AF: —since in the book you say that interruptions can be refreshing in everyday exchanges. I was taken by your statement that men spend two out of every three of their conversational minutes talking about themselves, whereas women spend only about a third of their time doing so. Does that make women better conversationalists than men? Better listeners?

DM: Scottish philosopher David Hume rebelled against the coffeehouse, male-dominated culture of the 1750s. "You know," he said, "we need to have women be part of this—they're better at it than men are. Men are abstract and political and argumentative, and women are more social and binding," and so on.

But I think it's true that women have a greater sense of obligation to knitting a social fabric. I could be wrong, but that's my experience. (Hume called women the "sovereigns of the conversible world.") When it comes down to it, however—when you talk to someone in a confidential, personal, and honest way—the genders tend to melt away a little bit.

AF: I'd hate for our conversation to "diesel"—your term for the tendency of even a good talk to chug along, clunker fashion, once both parties know it is over. So can I coax "Doctor Dialogue" into prescribing a cure for the nation's conversation?

DM: I'll try—but I'll warn you that I sound like a marriage counselor when I say that you have to *make time*. You have to carve out some time where you can have a conversation as an end in itself, not as a tool to do something or get something.

Because of work pressures and time pressures, that's very tough to do right now. But I'd say it's the number one thing. If you don't lead your life so that you can allow that to happen, it won't happen.

AF: All well and good—can I get that in a nugget to go?

DM: Okay, how's this: Just shut up and talk!