notes on a discussion

on the characteristics of interesting conversation.

  1. Every participant brings (literally) a lifetime of disparate backgrounds, experiences, ideas, convictions and intellectual training to the table. The key to interesting conversation is being able to relevantly negotiate — adapt? — all of it into a common topic of conversation,
  2. with flow, and some eloquence. Humour. Perhaps even an iota of wit.
  3. The chosen topic is likely to be interesting. But I’m often of the opinion that many topics that don’t seem interesting can be made interesting with willing & able constituents.
  4. Questions. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been so much about asking well-placed questions that make some headway in filling in my ignorance, which is vast and greedy and bottomless.
  5. Answers. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been equally about imparting information to others, which brings about a certain pleasure of one’s own, and certainly (one would hope) pleasure to one’s interlocutor. But imparting information means enunciating — & so consolidating — my own views. Sometimes one realizes, in the course of conversation, that one had views one didn’t previously know about, or had previously been unable to express in just that way. Conversation has made both possible. Isolation = stasis.
  6. Disagreement, or concord. Good things can be made out of both. The common denominator is respect.
  7. Repertoire, or history. With regular interlocutors one builds up a familiar terrain — each person is staked out on grounds you may not share, but whose contours and landmarks you have certainly come to see. Three possibilities are fascinating, from this. One, to see how your interlocutors’ subsequent remarks or arguments build up from that terrain, or unfold the terrain itself out endlessly as you conquer new topics of conversation. Two, to see how your interlocutors’ terrain itself changes over time, shifts subtly or undergoes titanic changes. And three, to see how your interlocutors’ terrain might move (expand), over time, closer towards your own — and to know that yours, too, might also be shifting (expanding) towards theirs.

is that all? or rather … is that too much?

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8 responses to “notes on a discussion

  • Belle

    I adore your writing. Especially “my ignorance, which is vast and greedy and bottomless.” Is that your own, or are you borrowing from another? I adore it; to use it, I must cite it properly. I am, you see, a history prof and completely insane on the academic proprieties.

  • Rachel

    it is indeed my phrase — you see, I am on such intimate terms with my Ignorance that I am very keen to represent it accurately & with all the literary rigour I can muster … after all, those who name a problem define it & thus claim it, possess it :)

    (a similar impulse, I think, lies behind nouns and colonies…)

    thank you for dropping by!

  • Belle

    So I shall note it Rachel’s. And it shall now grace my teaching, when I assure students that I rely on their benign ignorance and now I shall encourage them to embrace that and make it like yours: greedy and bottomless. As is my own.

    Mine is also somewhat indiscriminate, hungry for tastes of everything.

  • robin

    8. (Maybe 7a.) The terrain of the conversation itself. I think the sign of a REALLY good conversation is that by the end of it, those assembled have constructed a sort of mini-language — there are turns of phrase & in-jokes that made no sense several hours ago, and presently make no sense to anyone not in the conversation, and will likely not make THAT much sense even to those involved the next day, but for the moment, they are the very EXTREME of insight and hilarity.

    Especially hilarity. The hallmark of this mini-language is really the in-joke — but in a way it’s a serious thing, too — sort of a pact, or a password for the fleeting secret society forged around this table/campfire/rug/pillow.

    And by being jokes, and by being shared, they are I think, the true indicators of respect (see: #6). You can SAY it’s a respectful conversation all you want but if nobody’s comfortable enough to laugh it’s probably not.

    9. Like jazz, one must know when to solo and when to keep time.

  • robin

    I realize in retrospect 8 was a lot like 7. I just really think the in-jokes are important. Counterfactual dining!

  • Rachel

    I like #9 a lot — ’tis true. Conversation is a kind of music — or perhaps it’s more that music is a sort of conversation …

  • musing about conversation « a historian’s craft

    [...] 11th, 2007 by Rachel right after I extol the virtues and benefits of conversation, I read an article in the NYT that exemplifies the vices and disadvantages thereof. An excerpt: We [...]

  • Tim

    Listening and generosity are my favorite virtues in good conversation. You can’t really pick up the terms or ideas in someone else’s conversation unless you’re really listening, and you have to listen to genuinely respond.

    You can have a series of discrete, intelligent statements back and forth, all on the same topic, but still walk away unsatisfied, because nobody has listened to each other, so a conversation hasn’t really taken place. Cf., most academic conferences, graduate seminars, and political debates.

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