Conversation has fallen on hard times.
Let’s face it, most of us find talking to strangers to be a rarity. This is our new societal reality. The in-between moments of life — running errands and picking up carry-out — are now filled with checking our mobile devices. We’d rather scroll through our Twitter feed than venture out with the risky words of a bygone era, “Hi, what’s your name?” But more than that, when we actually make plans for conversation apart from business, it can sound more like a threat than an invitation.
Catherine Blyth picks up on this in her book The Art of Conversation. She explains that even the phrase “we need to talk” is heard negatively. For thousands of years, Blyth explains, the core of human interaction was the good, old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation, but today we are increasingly pushing that aside — and we’re all missing out for it.
The problem, contrary to popular belief, isn’t personality differences. The Western hemisphere isn’t suddenly inhabited by mainly quiet, reflective types. The real problem, or perhaps the splintered problem of our epidemic distractedness, is the plain truth that we have forgotten how to talk to one another. In large part, we don’t know how to have conversations anymore.
In large part, we don’t know how to have conversations anymore.
Blyth’s book is a practical guide to help us figure it out, including some basic maxims like “think before you speak” and “take turns,” and formerly intuitive rules such as “start with a greeting.” It doesn’t take long to sense the value in this education, even just to be a decent citizen. But for Christians, the seriousness is amplified — even vital to our calling in this world.
Jesus Tells Us to Love
First, there is Jesus’s command to love our neighbor. Specifically, he tells us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew [19:19]). It’s important that we see this as he said it. He does not say, as my college professor on comparative religion once pointed out, “Don’t do to others what you don’twant them to do to you.” That negative frame of mind would create a wholly passive enterprise — which pretty much describes the Minnesota in which I live. Good neighboring meansnot being a nuisance to the folks next door. And that’s all.
In a real-life cautionary tale, one of my neighbors, a friend who has lived in our neighborhood for 40 years, told me about the first time he got to know our late neighbor across the street, who had also spent decades in our community. It was at his funeral. He had regular duties at the mass, and ironically, was moved by his amazing eulogy — only to discover that it was the man he’d seen mow the lawn in front of him for years. My friend admitted, regrettably, that he just tried not to ruffle feathers, that he kept the music down and trashed picked up. The two men ate dinner, and slept, and raised their families 100 feet from one another for years, and never enjoyed a conversation with one another.
Written by Jonathan Parnell
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