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Last Updated: Friday, 21 April 2006, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
The dying art of conversation
Chit-chat and small talk have taken the place of proper conversation, according to a project to chart spoken English. So are we really losing the art of profound discussion - who better to ask than two expert conversationalists.

We asked Ron Carter, co-author of Cambridge Grammar of English, to discuss this with psychologist Ros Taylor. He's a Nottingham University professor, behind a 900 million-word database of spoken English. She works with companies to encourage people to talk to each other. In the course of their chat, they practise what they preach.

Ron
RON: So do you think the nature of conversation is being lost?
Ros
ROS: Is it lost, or is it different? It's probably more difficult. Time is one of the barriers; everyone's rushing, too busy to talk. And noise - it can be difficult to hear people. In a restaurant the other night I was saying "pardon" the whole night.
RON: Time is crucial. And noise and speed of communication - with texts and e-mails we're used to quick responses - maybe that's got something to do with it.
ROS: And we don't get around a table to eat, we eat on couches watching TV. If we aren't brought up to converse in the family, then it becomes more difficult to establish that pattern of behaviour. But I don't like to think that there's no hope...
RON: Even on TV, things occur in bite-size chunks - soap scenes are now just in 30-second bursts.
ROS: Yes, I notice that watching rolling TV news channels. There's all these little sound bites, yet we've barely got into what the story's about.
RON: I remember chat shows 20 years ago had one guest on for an hour. Now it's five in one show.
ROS: In case we get bored!
RON: Yes.
ROS: With iPods and all, we always need to be distracted, we can't have our own thoughts. Where's our thinking? If we're not thinking, we've got nothing to converse about.
RON: If you don't get opportunities to develop and refine your thinking, the danger is you become more inflexible in your thinking, that you listen only to yourself - which isn't democratic.
ROS: No.
RON: And we're not such good listeners. That's where the art of conversation is being lost. We transmit in short, sharp chunks, but don't receive too well.
ROS: That puts us in a dangerous position. In my work with chief executives, what impresses me is their ability to listen, assimilate and talk. How worrying if those are not going to be the attributes in the future if the sole focus is efficiency. A multinational drinks company I worked with held efficiency as a badge of honour - on and off the phone as quickly as possible. I asked why they didn't get to know their customers? For we like to buy from people we like.
RON: And what was their answer?
ROS: They thought it inefficient, but gave it a go. Two weeks later, orders had virtually doubled. By finding out more about their customers, they were able to suggest other drinks to try. How can we lose track of people like that?
RON: Any relationship requires inter-personal skills, even buying and selling.
ROS: The internet has given us that instant non-people-oriented way of buying.
RON: You just tick drop-down boxes.
ROS: I wonder if that's the way life is going?
RON: But there's a way conversation is being preserved, and that's reading groups. People meet informally - or online - to discuss their ideas and feelings about books. That's a recent phenomenon which runs counter to what we've been saying.
ROS: I think it's fabulous. And Harry Potter, which gets children into reading. Talking about books is a great way to engage with another's ideas.
RON: It gives people something to talk about.
ROS: And the best talkers can interpret and be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is infectious, and that's what conversation is about.
RON: Conversations start in one place and move us on to other fabulous places that we would never go on our own. We're in a culture at the moment that's encouraging us to run on the spot.
ROS: Great analogy.

THE MAGAZINE: So conversation is at risk, but we are getting better at making small talk. Surely that has some benefits?

RON: I think small talk, social talk, is valuable - that's how you develop relationships.
ROS: It can start that way and then lead on.
RON: It's whether you have time and space and will to build on that.
ROS: When we start conversation, what we're doing is sifting to find out what we have in common. It's like looking for gold...
RON: Panning.
ROS: Thank you. When you find it, you think 'wow, we've got so much in common, and some exciting differences, let's move this on.' I work with people who lack conversational skills, and they imagine the world to be filled with witty repartee.
RON: Oscar Wilde-type observations.
ROS: Right, they think you've got to stun with your insights and bon mots. But what you need to do is bond and then lead things on.

THE MAGAZINE: So how can you become a good conversationalist?

ROS: Ask open-ended questions about family, job, recreation and education. Once you get in there, listening, you can add your own tuppence worth.
RON: And don't talk only about yourself. Pick up on what others say, develop it. A good talker is also a good listener.
ROS: It's quite a complex dance we're talking about.

THE MAGAZINE: Sorry to have to stop you two, but we're out of time. Apt, given what you've been saying.

RON: Very nice to talk with you, Ros.
ROS: And with you. What's your e-mail address?


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Online discussion forums are helping to destroy conversation. If you've ever spent time on some, you'll find that any hint of going off-topic brings moderators down with a vengence. I wonder if this doesn't trickle down to our real life conversations, making people hesitant to take a chat off on a tangent when it strikes their fancy.
Lisa, Cambridge, UK

I'm meeting my boyfriend's parents on Saturday for lunch and I'm dreading it. I'm a reasonably good conversationalist (I'm training for the ministry) who has a knowledge of enough subjects to follow a conversation... as long as people actually talk! It's taken me four months to train my boyfriend that I actually want to hear what he has to say. His parents are fairly typical of people I meet in the course of a day - they either expect everyone else to do the talking, or sit and giggle nervously. It's why I love my old ladies - they know how to talk properly, and to listen. Any suggestions about how to handle tomorrow?
A Mouse, London

I got half way through this and thought "God, boring" and went back to the homepage. The second I'd done that I realised that it was exactly what they were talking about. It wasn't that it was so much boring just long!
Martin Holmes, Braintree, Essex

I belive that it has to do with the way you were brought up. If you had joyful discussion often in your home, naturally you will try to reproduce this as often as possible with your spouse or your friend or the clerk at the store or with anyone who is ready to engage in a conversation.
Nicole Picot, Bathurst, Canada

I feel guilty sometimes because I find so many people boring. My natural enthusiasm is often thought of as slightly mad. I am quite relieved that I still have the ability to converse, even though there are not that many people left who can "crack". I do miss it so much.
Helen Rimmer, Penrith, UK

Very interesting.
No it wasn't.
Yes it was, conversation is an important skill.
You would.
What's that supposed to mean?
You like talking so much it's hard to get a word in.
That's unfair. You talk in monosyllables all the time.
No.
Yes.
This conversation is going nowhere; it is a waste of time.
Aah maybe, but at least we had it...
Chris Wills, Fareham, UK

I crave proper conversation. It is a lost art. At uni we discussed everything from religion to media but most people I've met since think that a conversation that isn't about a soap or a reality TV show is for snobs. I would love to see proper conversation make a comeback.
Debbie, Glasgow

I have some fantastic discussions with friends at the pub. Also, people are generally friendly and want to connect with each other, and you can have superb conversations at bus stops, in shops, or just wandering around. Being able to communicate effectively is what differentiates humans from other animals.
Jen, Norwich

We're being influenced by machines (I avoid saying technology, because I have a positive attitude to change). We are under the impression that everything needs to be done yesterday. It's a direct result of one-upmanship or being just that little too competitive. Everybody, chill out!
Rich Skirrow, Harrogate

My wife and I do sometimes eat in front of the TV, but the programmes promote discussion, as do newspapers. If we go to see a film, even if it's a light blockbuster, we still discuss what we thought about it and why. I go to the pub in the evenings with friends and talk to them on various topics. Conversation is far from dead.
B Michell, London

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