The Death of the Lively Art

In my lifetime I’ve seen many, many things meander down Memory Lane, apparently never to resurface again. Among them are thank-you notes, Christmas cards, and vinyl records. Fortunately, most things that become antiquated are replaced by something new that might not be necessarily an improvement but is usually better than nothing. I don’t think that’s going to be the case with one aspect of social interaction that seems to be limping along to a slow a painful death: the lively art of conversation.
One of the things I truly enjoy doing is going to a restaurant and eavesdropping on the conversations going on at the tables around me. Not in a-climbing-over-the-back-of-the-booth-and demanding-that-the-other-parties-repeat-what-they-just-said kind of way, but in a casual, wow-your-life-is-WAY-more-interesting-than-mine manner. Listening in on those conversations is like being a part of a real life soap opera and it almost always makes me appreciate the somewhat sedate pace of my own world to an even greater degree. However, of late I’ve noticed that restaurant conversations seem to be drying up faster than a sidewalk puddle on a hot day in July. Instead of talking to each other, people eating out are often busily texting other people who aren’t eating out with them, resulting in no one saying a word to anyone else at the table except when the waiter stops by wanting to know who’s ready for another drink.

People no longer seem to understand—or care—what a conversation is supposed to consist of. Maybe I’m wrong but I’ve always been under the belief that a conversation is when I say something to you, you listen and then say something back to me. Then I say something to you and so on and so on until the conversation is over. Oh, and that elusive “something” has to be more than a generic how-are-you? At least, that’s how I remember conversations being. Conversations have evolved from verbal tennis matches into murky double monologues where one person talks about what is on his mind/life/facebook page while the other person impatiently waits for him to finish so that she can talk about what’s on her mind/life/facebook page. Sometimes they don’t even wait for the other person to stop talking but instead pull out their cell phone and start texting another person to get a head start on yet another monologue of the cyber variety. People no longer have conversations; they have recitations instead.

This truly perplexes me. Conversations are supposed to involve more than one person and more than one point of view. They are supposed to be about learning something about how other people think, feel and react to the world around them. It helps if they occur in real time and involve a little eye contact every now and then. Not every conversation a person has is going to be earth-shattering or even all that interesting but as we lose the ability to even feign interest in other people’s lives, what’s going to vanish next? Mother’s Day? And can anyone say in all honesty that they are positive that whatever they have to say is categorically more interesting than anything anyone else could possibly come up with? I don’t think so.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame cell phones, video games or emails for the lack of conversational skills plaguing our society at the moment because many people who stink at having conversations are not in the under-30 crowd. Lousy conversationalists know no age boundaries. My sister, who is no spring chicken, regularly goes on the computer or texts other people while we’re talking on the telephone and when I ask her why she bothered to call me if she’s going to check her email while I’m telling her all the fascinating details of what’s going on in my life, she’ll reply, “Oh, I can do two things at once.” Well, maybe. But believe me, she isn’t doing either of them very well and she’s also irritating her only sibling in the process.

Maybe I’m in the minority as someone who misses having honest-to-goodness conversations with living, breathing people as opposed to a cell phone or facebook pal. Maybe I’m too sensitive and expecting too much by wanting people to ask me how I am and have them be truly interested in my response. All I know for sure is that the once lively art seems to have died a slow death and never even received a decent burial.


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