A year ago we moved into a neighborhood that had been developed by a man who had a vision of community even Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be proud of: Craftsman-style homes sit closer to the sidewalk than to the back of the lot. Garages are tucked along alleys instead of front and center. Best of all, each house has a large, covered front porch.
Problem is: These porches are empty.
Writers and/or thinkers have been warning for years about what some are calling “the disappearing art of conversation,”and never before moving to this neighborhood have I been more tempted to agree.
Don’t get me wrong, I have talked to people and people have talked to me; we have veritably pummeled each other with words, but meaningful conversation has been, in many cases, absent. To be fair, they probably feel as ignored as I have, as unlistened to, as invisible. Hours of one person pontificating while the other is well into their fourth iced tea does that.
Conversation, or lack of, has been on my mind since earlier this year when I heard of Sherry Turkle’s forthcoming book, Reclaiming Conversation. In my search to figure out why I am so dissatisfied with what passes as conversation in the great year of our Lord 2014, I’ve come across not only a book and an article titled “The Art of Conversation,” but also an article titled “Saving the Lost Art of Conversation,” all the while asking, is it me, them, or both?
People (even Turkle) worry, but say, hey, at least we are still talking. But is the mere act of talking necessarily conversation?That argument smacks of the reluctant reader bragging about opening a Danielle Steel novel, “At least I’m reading!”
I found The Art of Conversation book more pretentious than helpful, so turned to that everlasting fount of wisdom: Facebook. According to my Facebook peeps, a great conversationalist is not only a person who keeps her face out of her phone, but also someone who is humble and curious and asks great questions but without ulterior motives. Great conversationalists are great listeners, said several friends, with one beautifully summing:
“Good conversationalists focus on the other person; they are interested in what the person is saying and how they are saying it. They ask careful questions, but at the right time. They share personal information, but without stealing the spotlight or one-upping constantly. They empathize. They bring an energy to the conversation that makes it more intense, but in a good way. I leave a conversation like that feeling listened to, valued, and understood.”
Bemoaning conversation’s demise is the easy part. What’s harder is realizing that meaningful conversation isn’t a ranting monologue about me/me/me. Conversation can be a glut of empty words or balm to the soul, damning or healing, dirt or gold.
Like prayer, it should be a dialogue with plenty of listening and even, at times, silence.
Empty porches seem the perfect place to start.