What Conversation Can Do for Us

There was once a time when strangers talked to one another, sometimes eagerly. “In past eras, daily life made it necessary for individuals to engage with others different from themselves,” Paula Marantz Cohen explains. In those moments of unpredictability and serendipity, we confronted difference. There were no smartphones, message boards, or online factions. Maybe because life moved at a slower pace, and every interaction wasn’t so freighted with political meaning, we had the opportunity to recognize our full humanity. Nowadays, she argues, we are sectarian and “self-soothing,” having fallen out of such practice. What we need is to return to the basics: to brush up on the art of conversation.

Cohen, a professor of English at Drexel University, is the author of “Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation” (Princeton). She makes the case that talking to others—sharing our stories—is how we learn things and sharpen our belief systems, how we piece together what it means to be funny or empathetic. Conversation can change our minds while sustaining our souls. There’s some social-science research on her side. A 2018 study showed that participants who had more substantial conversations reported relatively high levels of satisfaction with life.

Cohen considers models of good, entertaining conversation throughout literary history and popular culture, from Jane Austen to Abbott and Costello. Her inspirations draw heavily from her areas of academic expertise, as she explores how conversation is woven into the fabric of French intellectual culture (the salon) or élite English life (the gentleman’s club). But her primary qualification here is that she is a self-professed “talker,” the sort of person who lives for chatty checkout lines, leisurely coffee dates, vigorous college seminars, and spirited dinner parties—as well as spirited daydreams about whom you would invite to your fantasy dinner party of historical figures. She writes of the special “synthesis” that occurs in marriage or other long-term partnerships, in which one’s lexicon merges with that of another, producing shorthand terminology and a distinct rhythm and style. But she doesn’t prize these types of decades-long exchanges over others; she always remains open to new connection. “Surely, my readers can identify with that welling of positive feeling—that almost-falling-in-love-with someone with whom we engage on an authentic level,” she writes. “I have felt this not only for friends and even strangers with whom I’ve had a probing or even a fleeting conversation but also for whole classes of students where it can seem that the group has merged into one deeply lovable and loving body.”

A defense of conversation, of course, is necessary only if one feels it is under attack. In Cohen’s view, the practice of experiencing “uncertainty and open-endedness in a safe environment” has become imperilled by a variety of forces: political polarization, a mediascape that profits from dissent, the conformity of groupthink, even campus drinking culture. “Our society abounds in bad conversation,” Cohen writes, in part because it makes for more entertaining content on the Internet and television. People would rather regurgitate “predetermined positions,” she fears, than wrestle with ambiguity. No spaces seem safe for the frictions or disagreements that make conversation go. Families today appear to be increasingly unstable, requiring an ever-expanding cheat sheet of inoffensive talking points for navigating Thanksgiving. College was once a zone of free-flowing experimentation; today, it is dominated by ideological orthodoxy. Conversation was once an end in itself; now it is the stuff of self-help gurus and business-school strategy.

Amid all these forces, Cohen returns to true conversation as a kind of sanctuary. And, whether or not you agree with her description of the current climate, there’s something deeply appealing about her commitment to conversation. In its ideal form, it involves no audience or judge, just partners; no fixed agenda or goals, just process. As the philosopher Michael Oakeshott observed, in conversation “there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.” What matters, he continued, is the “flow of speculation.” Conversation is casual; it isn’t a chat (too noncommittal), a debate (too contentious), or a colloquy (too academic). And yet the cachet of conversation, with its connotations of open-mindedness and open-endedness, also encourages an overly broad application.

What can it possibly mean, for example, to have a “national conversation”? Bill Clinton is often credited with being the first sitting President to inaugurate the tradition, when, in 1997, he called for a “conversation on race.” In the two-thousands, with the rise of the Internet and then social media, these calls intensified, particularly in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. Uses of the phrase “national conversation” soared during the Presidency of Barack Obama, America’s last great conversationalist-in-chief. He often seemed less concerned with presiding from a position of power than with running the country as though it were a seminar, seeking consensus through debate and discussion. There was the Beer Summit, the listening tours, the town halls. (It’s a footnote of history that his main rival in the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton, launched her campaign with a similar call for addressing division head on: “Let the conversation begin.”)

It’s easy to grow cynical when politicians invite us to participate in conversation. They get to acknowledge difference, or feel another’s pain, rather than commit to meaningful action. And it’s dispiriting to sense that our everyday conversations—ephemeral, intimate—take place inside larger, seemingly endless national ones, and to so little effect. As President, Obama invited national conversations on race, policing, gun violence, the future of cities and neighborhoods, and, in June, 2009, “fatherhood and personal responsibility.” But years later even he appeared to lose hope. “What has happened is that our national conversation has broken apart,” he said in 2022.

Obama seemed interested in trying to solve a problem inherent to conversation: its tendency to devolve into argument. A few years ago, the literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote that “the state of agreement that would render argument unnecessary—a universal agreement brought about by facts so clear that no rational being could deny them—is not something we mortals will ever achieve.” This wasn’t meant to be a despairing conclusion. Instead, Fish pointed to how different genres of argument tilt along different axes of dispute: political ones often revolve around the interpretation of facts, while a marital argument is about “the management of words” within an intimate setting. Yet, Fish noted, political and marital arguments are similar in that, for the most part, neither is winnable. In marriage especially, there is no such thing as definitive victory, only momentary accords and truces. For Fish, there was no all-purpose method for conversation, just different conventions for different situations.

If conflict is inevitable, then we might as well prepare for it. In “Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard” (Penguin Press), Bo Seo, a two-time world-champion debater, offers his own method for disagreeing with others. “An argument contains nearly infinite space for improvement,” he writes. But if you know what you want people to conclude, you can begin mapping out a way for them to feel that such a conclusion is irresistible.

Competitive debate is a flawed model for civic discourse—it’s a world full of rules, time limits, and decorum. Contestants draw their assignments at random, and they are sometimes required to argue for positions or policies with which they disagree. In one pressure-filled round, Seo and a partner had to argue that “the world’s poor would be justified in pursuing complete Marxist revolution.” There’s a coolness to his description as he discusses how to approach such a prompt with serene reason. He explains how definitions might be structured for maximum efficacy, and, more generally, how to listen to what is being said by your adversary and how to expose its fallacies. In the case of class-based revolution, Seo and his partner knew they had to adapt a “full-blown Marxist screed” for a larger audience, arguing for “grand, civilizational” stakes.

In “Good Arguments,” Seo offers a set of rules gleaned from his years as a debater and as a debate-team coach. For example, avoid an abstract word when a concrete one will do. To describe our educational institutions as “failing” might lead us to any number of solutions, maybe even existential questions about the nature of institutions writ large. But to call them “underfunded” draws a line between problem and solution. For Seo, precise language produces clearer sentences, and a better-defined “journey” for listeners to follow, furtively delivering them to the destination that you’ve already chosen for them. His rules are seductive, a balance of sound logic and rhetorical flourish. (“Find the applause line.”) Good arguments are products of elegant and intelligent design; although they invite others in, their conclusions are meant to feel inescapable.

Seo’s paradigm is at some distance from actual political speech. One of his rules is “no emoting.” But he began to see the power of persona one day when he attended a campus sit-in, at which different speakers shared their experiences as part of the movement to force institutions to divest from fossil-fuel companies. Accustomed to forms of exchange where proportional, well-reasoned ideas trumped charisma and panache, Seo found the speeches revelatory. “Ideas don’t move people on their own,” his roommate explained to him. “People move people.” Seo concluded, “We had to make something new: a mode of speaking that did not force people’s hands but grasped them.”

A chilling moment came in 2016, when Seo and some Harvard debate pals were watching one of the Presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. What they saw was not diplomatic restraint but pure emoting. Trump was a product of what the linguist Deborah Tannen calls “argument culture,” in which a “pervasive warlike atmosphere” hangs over all public dialogue. Watching Trump, Seo was reminded of what could happen in the nastiest of debate rounds, when opponents competed in bad faith. “Bullies used the adversarial format to bludgeon opponents and used rhetoric not to enhance but to elide reason,” he writes. “They took advantage of the debate’s openness to ideas by introducing lies. Bad debates seemed to point back to some weakness in the activity itself. They showed that a debate, so hijacked, could be a harmful force in the world.”

“I don’t care if it’s the local or the express. We’re getting on board.”

Cartoon by Paul Karasik

We might share Cohen’s vision of a good conversation as endorphin-releasing, something akin to the warmth and contentment of slowly experiencing love. But we live in the age of the amygdala, aiming for outrage. Even if political discourse took the form of Seo’s idealized debate, the dynamic might still disserve us. In a debate, we aren’t trying to find common ground with someone else; Seo’s rules are not for winning over strangers but for defeating opponents in tournaments. Reason and personality are deployed not to appeal to the person you’re debating but to impress observers who listen and judge, while never entering the fray. It’s telling that social-media platforms, like Twitter, characterize themselves as serving a public conversation, and yet the presence of an audience turns online conversations into performances. A politician today is more likely to dunk on some random hecklers on Twitter than to court them.

Does genuine conversation have prospects within the political realm? In “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy” (Knopf), the journalist Anand Giridharadas laments a contemporary climate that is “confrontational and sensational and dismissive.” In the age of sophisticated psychographic profiling, strategists think that it’s rational for warring sides in a campaign to “write off” those who are unlikely to join their cause and instead focus on mobilizing their base. “Leaders who attempt outreach have been attacked by their own as sellouts, chided for centering those who would never ally with them anyway over those who have long had their back, if not their attention,” he writes.

Giridharadas depicts a world so fractious that many people have given up on the possibility of debate, let alone rangy conversation. His book tells the stories of progressive organizers, politicians, and activists. Like their counterparts on the right, they struggle to reach the other side. Some of those he interviews point to the election of Trump as a moment that destabilized their sense of what could be debated or discussed. At the same time, online discourse was becoming more sophisticated, even academic; suddenly, terms such as “white supremacy,” “patriarchy,” and “prison abolition” had entered the mainstream.

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