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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk

Recovering the lost art of true and civilized conversation

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

Sometimes our national conversation comes off paltry-how much did Sarah Palin pay for the suit and pumps?-and sometimes it turns substantive, even sublime. Today we find ourselves often in the latter mode (bluster over the iPhone's controversial antenna or the pace of the Obamas' vacation aside). Dominating the national conversation are mid-term elections, taxes, rising healthcare costs, unemployment benefits, energy policy in the wake of an oil disaster, the conduct of war, safety for children in the womb-in short, important issues that matter to most of us.

So why is so much of the national conversation so unhelpful? Why do we end debates with neighbors, restaurant encounters with friends, 20 minutes before a newscast, or a half-hour scrolling Facebook feeling deflated rather than elevated, or, if we're honest, smug rather than smarter?

Americans have become notably loose in conversation. Emoticons and abbreviations (I recently heard a dignified woman in her 70s use "omg" in an otherwise important discussion) replace thoughtfulness and articulation. Our attention spans are shorter; we want our colleagues to get to the point and our focus wanders until they do. For decades, the "express yourself" mantra has so overpowered what used to be called civilized discourse that our generation excels most at the one-way conversation-typified on what are called (without irony) social networking sites.

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It used to be different. Conversation in mid-14th century Old French meant "living together, having dealings with others," a "manner of conducting oneself in the world" or of exercising what then were considered the privileges of citizenship. It implied intimacy and also some friction, borrowing the Latin root vetere, from which we also derive the word versus. So intense was its connotation that from the 16th century conversation was used as a synonym for sexual intercourse; in the 18th century "criminal conversation" was a legal term meaning adultery.

Today we have bowdlerized its connotation by shallower means. After critics nailed Sarah Palin for using the word refudiate on Twitter she tried this recovery: "look it up in a fictionary." Later (having removed both entries from her account), she tweeted, "'Refudiate,' 'misunderestimate,' 'wee-wee'd up.' English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!" So from one summer to the next, from a Republican hopeful to a sitting president, we have what passes for national conversation and prefer our children not imitate it.

I imagine no one more earthy, connected, or passionate in conversation than Jesus. Or perhaps Paul, who was passionate not only about the content of conversation but the manner of it: "Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers" (2 Timothy 2:14). Or, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Colossians 4:6). Yet I imagine both possessed skill, something 21st-century followers of Christ sometimes don't rightly prize.

Charles Spurgeon said skilled conversation should be easy: It should "be such as becometh the gospel of Christ." The 19th-century Baptist preacher described its characteristics as simple (think straightforward), preeminently true, fearless, very gentle, very loving, and holy-and he concluded, "We must strive day by day to let our conversation be more in accordance with His gospel."

Neither Paul nor Spurgeon suggests that conversation be saccharine. But if it is to be salty, even crude, let it be for a reason!

Do our conversations with Muslim neighbors, everyday store clerks, humanistic in-laws, teens, and children everywhere bear Spurgeon's simple characteristics? Do they begin with love for God and love for neighbors as ourselves?

Let's talk.
Email Mindy Belz


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