There was a time when formal conversation was a highly respected and desirable art. For the rich upper class with nothing better to do than entertain themselves with their own exclusive company, being interesting, inoffensive and, if you can manage it, witty, seemed just about the epitome of human grace.
The period of the salon it was, an era described in The Age of Conversation by Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Teresa Waugh. My heart squeezes with envy at the thought of those drawing rooms. There is a reason they called that time the age of enlightenment. Conversation is one of the very best ways to learn anything. To be exposed to new ideas and perspectives.
America was born during the enlightenment. Interestingly, the age of conversation and enlightenment was a thing that suggested its own demise. America’s crazy ideas spelled the end of the upper class. The concept of a class who did not need to produce anything but conversation was rejected by the conversations that ensued.
America had work to do. America, and everywhere, had projects to start and research to do and the world to change. They did not have time to merely sit and converse. That has continued forward to this day.
But that didn’t mean the conversations had become unnecessary. Humans need to talk. They need to clear their psychic buffers and build on half conceived ideas. I think it might be nearly as essential as sleep.
It might be time to take a page from those salons again. Craveri writes “talent for listening was more appreciated than one for speaking. Exquisite courtesy restrained vehemence and prevented quarrels.”
I, for one, would like to prevent quarrels. World peace would be a little closer, if we take this idea as true, if listening could have that effect.
There are two people who have been working on this exact issue. I don’t know if they have read Craveri’s book, but Bill and Liz have taken a chunk of their lives to bike around the U.S. and wear a sign that says:
Talk to Me
These guys knock my socks off. I first heard about them on “This American Life”, the “Say Anything” episode. Bill and Liz sat on a busy Manhattan street holding their sign. People just came up and talked to them about anything.
Imagine my shock and delight to actually see with my own eyes these two fabulous people at the Los Angeles Book Fair last year. They sat with their sign and I walked over and talked to them!
I asked them about TAL, what they thought of Ira Glass, and barely restrained myself from asking for their autograph. They did, however, ask for mine, and my email address.
They surprised me with their sweetness. They really seemed sincere and interested in what people had to say. How could people maintain that kind of interest after so long?
I really wanted to get them to talk to me, actually. I thought they were fascinating. When I told them where I lived (Glendale), Liz told me she was part Armenian and had promised to go visit Glendale on their trip(Glendale’s population is more than 50% Armenian). I recommended some busy spots and a bus line to take to get there.
I tore myself away, at last. These guys are so great! I can barely get my mind around what they have chosen to do. I asked them about what was “next”, what they wanted to make of their experiences. They seemed not to have concrete plans.
In some ways, I think that’s good. Commercializing their endeavor could ruin the integrity of it, and they seemed to be so sincere.
I got an email from them. They have circled the lower 48 states on their bikes with their sign. Check out their website: http://www.nyctalktome.com
Ponder this, my friends. What does it mean to really listen?