Lion Roars

February - March 2009


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Lee Capristo
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From the Editor




Barbara GeehanAs I was looking for story ideas for the River Gazette recently, I stumbled upon a piece from the president of Colgate University, Rebecca Chopp. She described coming across a group of students as she walked across the upstate New York campus one sunny day. “What are you doing,” she asked them. “Taking time off to enjoy a conversation,” a young man responded, marvelously.


Unstructured communication such as this has been seriously impacted by e-mails, texting, and the 24-hour news pouring from TV cable and the Internet. Too often we find ourselves sitting side by side in the living room watching pundits on the new high def screen, or texting abbreviations to the people near us rather than speaking with them.


So, this is my plea: Take a moment and have a conversation. Not a chat, but a true thoughtful sharing of ideas that involves careful listening and thoughtful speaking.

What is true conversation? Eighteenth-century English moralist Samuel Johnson said it is talk beyond that which is necessary.

The art of good give-and-take conversation was valued throughout time. In fact, one of the first examples of an attempt to create rules for a good conversation came from Cicero, according to a recent article in The Economist called “The art of conversation.” In 44 B.C., he was telling his peers that good conversation requires alternation by participants. Speak clearly but not too much. Be courteous. Do not interrupt. And never criticize, he advocated.cartoon

The Economist article ranked Sir Isaiah Berlin, a Latvian-born Oxford philosopher who died in 1997, as among the greatest conversationalists who ever lived. Quoting Princeton historian Robert Darnton, Berlin’s friends would “watch him as if he were a trapeze artist, soaring through every imaginable subject, spinning, flipping, hanging by his heels and without a touch of showmanship.”

The magazine went on to define Sir Winston Churchill as “another magnificent talker, perhaps the greatest of the 20th century, but often a poor listener.” And author Virginia Woolf’s conversations would spin “off into fantastic fabrications while everyone sat around” and applauded.

Looking at conversation by culture, Economist experts said Italians are more tolerant of interrupting, the English are more tolerant of formality, and Americans of contradiction.

Stephen Miller, in his 2006 book Conversation: A History of Declining Art, warmly reminds us of the 17th-century coffeehouses in London and the 18th-century salons of Paris. He quotes French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who called conversation “an intellectual sporting event that will improve the mind.” He then disconsolately adds that its decline is due to our insistence on unguarded forthrightness and our fear of being judgmental. Others talk of the distraction of technology.

These days, you can go the bookstore and find a shelf full of self-help books telling us the rules of how to speak, how to be persuasive, or how to successfully motivate. But they are usually grounded in the business world: How to Motivate your Employees, How to Seal the Deal. Or the personal world: Good Pick-up Lines or After Sex.

So, please, before the art of just plain conversation dies, plan a soiree of different-minded people for Saturday night, or just gather your friends and family to the dinner table tonight. Or go outside and sit under the shade of a tree with a companion.

Going beyond Cicero, there are some other rules to consider:

Be a good listener. Be tolerant of views not your own. There are no winners or losers here. Dale Carnegie, patron of public speaking, adds that you should smile and make the other person feel important. But I will disagree with Cicero’s rules of not interrupting and not criticizing. Good conversation has an excitement to it fed by expression, emotion and feelings.

Don’t just engage in small talk. Share ideas and opinions. Revel in the use of words and the reciprocation of sharing.

– Barbara Geehan,
River Gazette editor