Never have we been so connected and informed. We have at our fingertips a world of knowledge covering every possible field. We can easily communicate with others all over the world at little cost. We should have advanced immensely in speaking with others. Everything should be in place for long stimulating conversations about every possible topic. Or so it would seem.
However, we are not talking to others. Worse yet, it appears many people don’t even know how to speak to one another. We are all wired up and have nothing to say. Many have lost the art of conversation.
The Silent Dinner Table
Stagnant and sterile silence dominates so many households. This is the conclusion of a recent survey in the U.K. about family habits there. These same bad habits are quite present in America, probably in similar proportions. They can also be found in differing degrees all over our globalized world.
One particularly tragic finding of this survey of 2,500 U.K. citizens is that a third of the families sit in complete silence during meal times. A further three in ten respondents report they have problems finding topics for dinner conversation.
Of course, there is also the problem of getting people to eat together in the same place at meals. About four in ten parents generally do not have meals together with their children at the same time. Ten percent of the respondents say they never have meals together as a family.
Getting the family together around the table does not resolve the conversation problem. Over one in five respondents report they would rather be watching television than talking with family members. An incredible 44 percent say they stare at their phones during the meal—a practice known as zombie eating. Everyone knows those who use mealtime for social media and texting.
A True Crisis that Is Ignored
The results of the survey are shocking because they reveal a lack of the human element that is so essential to our lives. The art of conversation is not something that can be delegated to an app or found on the screen. There is something intrusive in the nature of our machines that make conversation impossible when engaged.
Technology has so transformed our lives that each retreats to his or her little sterile world. And this is a great tragedy that should concern parents and families. It should concern our national leaders since the social graces learned at the table are the foundation of civility in society. And yet no one seems to care.
Conversation: A Luxury the Poorest Can Enjoy
Indeed that joyful sensation of being together, face to face, is what makes the family so special. Conversation is open to all ages, professions and social settings. One need not be rich as good talk is a luxury even the poorest can enjoy.
Upon reading of the U.K. survey, we can cite another article about conversation. The writer discusses the manner of conversing. He even broaches a contrary problem—those who are intemperate in their talking. Back in the late nineteenth century when this article was written, the problem was often too much conversation rather than the sterile silence of too little.
Perhaps the most impressive idea in the article is that conversation is something to be learned. It takes effort and self-discipline. We are asked to be considerate of others and not say anything that comes to mind as so often happens in our Twitter-dominated world.
“The careful thinker and listener finds so much to moderate his preconceived ideas, so much to correct in them, sometimes so much reason to change them, that he is in no hurry to give voice to them in their present callow form.”
We are called to talk about things of importance and not trifles and small (and boring) personal matters. The appetites and inferior impulses of our nature “need provision, but do not bear much discussion.” Indeed, we should seek to say something that is “worth the utterance.”
At the same time, conversation must deal with our daily lives. It is not a discourse or a speech, but how we might discuss those things that are important to us. “Language occupies the mid-region between the wants that ground us to the earth and the affections that lift us to the skies.”
Topics of conversation are important, but that is not the principal need. What is missing today are those conversationalists who know how to listen and involve others in the discussion. These are people who are part of the general culture who can draw from a rich history, literature and tradition and thus make conversing interesting and engaging.
The article quoted above was an excellent example of this general culture reflected in what was once known as liberal education. The author quoted Homer and referenced Plutarch. He cited Scriptures and recalled an episode of ancient Roman history. However, the author was not necessarily a learned man for his time. The article appeared in the January 1890 edition of the Locomotive Engineers Journal. The advice about conversation was targeting the working men that drove the trains. However, it was assumed that most people would be familiar with the topics that were broached in the article.
An Appreciation for Leisure
A return to conversation presupposes much more than just learning, culture and civility. Instead, it calls for a new appreciation of tranquility, recollection, and true leisure so opposed to today’s constant activity. The mania for speed leads to nausea for reflection. Those proportional spiritual pleasures—joys like conversation, art, and silence—have ever less attraction to a world addicted to sensation, simultaneity and immediacy.
It is a pity that people no longer have an appetite for these spiritual pleasures. We need them if we are to restore today's dysfunctional families who cannot find time to eat together. Only in such a spiritual atmosphere will family members be talking to each other again.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Soceity--Where We've Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.