on conversation

Tim Herrera’s tips for having better conversations are not tips for having better conversations. They’re tips for being better liked. They’re strategies for getting people to have a higher opinion of you, for (as one of the people Herrera interviews puts it) making people ”think you’re a great conversationalist.” Herrera’s piece isn’t about conversation at all, it’s about becoming “a true conversation superstar.”

Tyler Cowen’s alternative suggestions aren’t much, or any, better. Cowen isn’t worried about being liked, but he does seem to be worried about … I don’t know, let’s call it conversational productivity. “Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.” I imagine Cowen going home ay the end of the day and writing in his diary, “I had seven conversational opportunities today, and after employing my signaling technique discovered that two of them yielded productive interchange. My records show that 28% productivity is slightly above average for conversations, so it was a pretty good day.”

If someone were to ask me “How can I become a better conversationalist?” my first thought would be a question: “Why do you want to know?” Because if what you want is popularity or productivity, then conversation is no more than a means to some other end and maybe not even an especially useful means.

Genuine conversation, it seems to me, is not something that one can aim directly at. (In this sense it’s like happiness.) Genuine conversation happens not when you’ve decided you want to have some conversation but when you’re actually engaged with another person. Conversation emerges from a degree of leisure, from patience, and from the trust that enables people to be truly present with each other and to be well-disposed to each other. Rather than asking “how can I have good conversations” or (worse) “how can I be a good conversationalist,” I think we’d all do better to ask this: How can I live in such a way that conversations naturally emerge from my form of life?