The Art Of Conversation
December 31, 2007 9:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I cultivate / find deeper conversations with people? In university it was always easy to find people ready to talk about philosophy, politics, psychology, etc. But now, as I have gotten older and supplanted myself into the corporate world, the art of conversation seems to have been lost. It would appear that most people are resigned to talking about kids, jobs, and pop culture. Am I just in the wrong social circles or does this type of small talk permeate our culture? I long to attend a French salon or dinner party whose primary purpose is the art of conversation. Where can I find groups of people who like engaging, face-to-face conversation? How can I steer people away from talking about what they saw on CNN and towards something with a little more substance?
posted by kaizen to Human Relations (23 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
You're right about the current state of small talk. Most people don't want to get into deep conversations about serious topics with people that they don't know very well.

How about joining a club for like-minded people who want to discuss topics that you are interested in? For example, you could probably find a book club in your area that would be a good venue to have conversations about interesting topics.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:48 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Start your own conversation salon?
posted by found missing at 9:58 AM on December 31, 2007 [3 favorites]

i've managed to make deeper contact by picking up what they are reading. get them to make recommendations and then read the recs and come back at them with analysis... covert book clubbing... eventually you can steer them towards books movies and other intellectual materials that you want to deal with...
posted by eedele at 9:59 AM on December 31, 2007

Quite by accident, I have found that book clubs tend to attract people who like those kinds of conversations. Usually people talk about the book for a while, and then the discussion veers off somewhere equally fun. That's probably what I would try. If you're in a big town, you'll probably find some book clubs on

On preview: sounds like hit-and-run book clubs work just as well.
posted by Coventry at 10:04 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

If I saw a posting on Craigslist (or some similar site) advertising a French salon or dinner party as you described I would definitely want to attend. Maybe you have to take the bull by the horns and host something similar yourself, or organize such an event in a local restaurant/bar/lounge/cafe if your apartment is too small for salon-ing.
posted by tractorfeed at 10:22 AM on December 31, 2007

I think part of the reason why people in the workplace don't talk about serious topics is that they don't want to cause inadvertent offense to their co-workers.

If person A deeply believes in socialism, the free market, homeopathy, Buddhism, or the beauty of Yeats' writing, and person B doesn't at all, and they have an argument about it, their work relationship is going to be strained.

I nth book clubs. Also, if you live in an university town, or near one, have a look out for talks or discussions organised by a department or student union.
posted by Zarkonnen at 10:32 AM on December 31, 2007

I have always despaired over the state of conversation and avoided the banal crap about work, and then found myself not having ANY conversations. I think that a lot of people are like you and long for meaningful conversation, but are afraid to create it themselves. I have discovered that I need to master the art of the shallow, banal conversation (and probably stop calling it disparaging names like that) so that I can take the conversation somewhere more interesting for both of us. When first meeting someone, the conversation almost HAS to be shallow; you have to say hello, a comment about the weather, the party, how you know the hosts, where do you work, do you have kids etc. If you want deeper conversation, listen to the person, see what seems to interest them and go down that road, but steer the conversation to a deeper way of looking at the subject. For example, if the person can't stop talking about his newborn twins, ask about what they find most challenging about parenthood, or what they try to do differently from their own parents. Ask them about some twins research you read about and ask if they have seen the same thing in their kids. Yes, you are still talking about kids, but you are taking it deeper. Same with jobs; ask them what your conversation partner would do with his/her life if there were no restrictions, ask something deeper about their profession. Some people just won't go there with you, but I think it's up to you to generate and inspire the type of conversations you want.
posted by kenzi23 at 10:37 AM on December 31, 2007 [12 favorites]

I am wondering this too, and I think a book club is the best idea. Talking about the book is a good ice-breaker to eventually talking about the larger issues in life.

If I have to - or rather listen to someone - talk about the latest drill, TV, car, gadget that they want, or hear about the private life of some celebrity who has done nothing to make this world a better place my head is going to implode!

Another time, where I thought I met someone who seemed to be interested in talking about the deeper aspects in life was actually only interested in preaching his view (i.e. one-way conversation) and not really communicating (i.e. two-way conversation)

Also, one of the problems is that I think in order to talk about something as deep as philosphy or religion or spirituality or self-actualization one needs to have some knowledge about it. I am totally interested in, for example, Bhuddism, but know zero about it. So I won't try to say anything about it for fear of coming across as a know-it-all (see Cliff Claven).

Most people, you will find are more than willing to listen to an "expert" speak. If you yourself can become well-versed at something or several things, you might attract an audience and from there, perhaps you can be on your way to having the conversations you wish!
posted by bitteroldman at 10:51 AM on December 31, 2007

Wow, I need to find these book clubs. Every one I've ever tried to join was a thinly-veiled excuse to chat about the same crap that the OP mentions. I swear, I was in one (very briefly) where people got annoyed that I wanted to talk about the book we were supposed to have read.

So yea, I don't have any advice, but I am very interested in the answers.
posted by cabingirl at 10:53 AM on December 31, 2007

If you are truly interested, people are usually willing to talk about subjects which interest them. You should seek out people who are interested in the subjects you wish to discuss.

If somebody is only interested in kids, jobs, and pop culture, even if they're expert at conversation, you won't have a whole lot to talk about.
posted by kidbritish at 10:57 AM on December 31, 2007

Salons are not about the art of conversation. I go to them all the time. They are mainly there to interact with people you could not otherwise stand while you are sober. Last one I went to, I got into this conversation with this horrid little pre-Doctoral about the merits of Lucian Freud. He didn't really know anything and then completely rejected my idea of taking Gerhard Richter on a road show to America's top art programs to critique artist study of hyper-realism - but his rejection was based on logistics, rather than philosophy; meaning he truly does not understand the state of art education because anyone would know Mr. Richter would have time to come for three days to each of the two best schools teaching hyper-realism in the country. What a retard.
posted by parmanparman at 11:22 AM on December 31, 2007 [10 favorites]

With regard to book groups, look into the Great Books Foundation. There's bound to be a group near you, and if there isn't? You can start one.
posted by peacecorn at 12:03 PM on December 31, 2007

Kaizen, this is a great question and I would repeat the suggestions to start your own salon with an ad in Craigslist or elsewhere. Hopefully you'll meet folks like parmanparman, who sounds like a real charmer!
posted by mattholomew at 12:06 PM on December 31, 2007

Oddly enough, I've found that the deepest conversations I've had recently have been in my carpool. Philosophy and riding in cars seem to go very well together.
posted by tkolar at 12:49 PM on December 31, 2007

A great place to look for book clubs or conversation groups is your local book store. Most large bookstores, especially those with cafes, will have a community calendar with listings of book clubs (usually by genre), foreign language conversation, and a hodgepodge of other groups that meet at the store. This can even apply to the big chain stores.
posted by Pangloss at 1:17 PM on December 31, 2007

Part of the problem is that once you leave college, you realize that a lot of the things you thought you had to say about philosophy, politics, and psychology were at best ill-founded and at worst just dumb. If you want to talk about philosophy, for instance, you might need to find some philosophers to talk to. Politics is a bit easier, since many more people feel they have the right to speak on the subject -- but even so it's a small minority.

kenzi23's answer is great. The worlds of children, work, and mass culture are incredibly interesting and to talk about them sensibly requires you to use philosophy, politics, and psychology, right? So talk about the subjects your conversation partners want to talk about, but try talking about them in the manner you want to talk about them. "Do you find having kids scary? Why? Do you feel pressure to raise your kids differently from the way you were raised, and where does this pressure come from?" is a lot better than "Enough about your kid -- IS GOD DEAD?"
posted by escabeche at 1:17 PM on December 31, 2007 [8 favorites]

If there are Unitarians in your area, you might check them out. The local Unitarians (and Quakers, too) have a series of dinners at people's houses. I suspect these would be likely to have real conversation about big questions, but I haven't gone to any myself. You don't have to be an official member of the group or even much of an attender, and no one's going to try to convert you to anything.
posted by PatoPata at 1:19 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does your university's alumni club have any presence where you live? If so, see if they have any sort of activities that might allow you to connect with like-minded others. If they don't, offer to organize one.
posted by mogget at 2:56 PM on December 31, 2007

In my experience the problem is with adult relationships in general, compared to college, etc. For me, good conversations, regardless of topic, are primarily a form of intimacy and exploration, requiring time, attention and full commitment, at least to the current moment, in order to flouish, or even get going. They need a certain freedom (and a willingness) to make on-the-spot recalculations about what and who your next few minutes or hours (if not days) are going to be devoted to, in spite of other plans and other people. Every converation in pre-work/family days was also an experiment in friendship and circle-expansion.

It came as a great, sad shock to realize, shortly after getting married and finding myself in the working world, that I almost never met anyone who wasn't already fully booked both time- and intimacy-wise, even outside of work. The circles were closed, and often heavily defended. Almost every conversation in a structured environment like work or even in workshops and adults classes seems carefully calculated not to challenge everyone's prior commitments.

So, I've found you need to create some new structures that specifically allow this. For me, a men's group worked well, but there, the focus was more on growing the intimacy, not so much on letting the conversations roam off in any direction they seemed to want; and the group I was in was committed to having no leader/pontiff. Never tried a book club, but it seems a good suggestion, too, so long as the group can somehow manage to reign in any tendency to hold forth, presume leadership or other such power struggles.

I also had many good talks at lunch when I worked in an office; seemed like I could eventually find a least a few souls who also wanted to get off-campus sort of regularly for some cliche-free book/movie/story/experience sharing. i.e., friendship forming within safe limits.

Then, of course, there's always strangers. Take more long train/bus/plane rides! You gotta catch folks when they're off-grid;)
posted by dpcoffin at 3:13 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

First, an observation, then a suggestion.

My observation is that non-trivial conversation has become much more difficult in the USA than in many other places, as a direct result of how bitterly divided the country has became over partisan issues. Bush seems to have alienated enough of the nation now that this problem is receding, but I (and a lot of other people) would just not go near real conversation most of the time while in the USA, because so many people were so deeply entrenched, personally invested, and militant about their positions that conversation with people whose general views you didn't already know was a Really Bad Idea.
So even if you tried to start serious conversation, probably 2 out of 3 people participating are going to be actively trying to shut it down, knowing it will just get nasty.

Suggestion: The TED Talks. Round up the people you know who know about the TED talks, or introduce people to the concept, then have them round up the people they know who would be interested in that sort of thing, then plan an evening:
- Everyone attending prepares a 2 to 6 minute talk on something they find interesting (and about which they know quite a lot more than the layman). Aim for 7 to 15 people.
- The start of the evening consists of everyone giving their talk, one after the other. This should take up an hour. BAM - a dozen interesting and unrelated topics and insights presented to everyone in the space of an hour.
- The rest of the evening is left open for people to wander over to each other, ask any questions that someone's talk prompted, and so on. With luck, little groups of conversation will form and shift among people, ideas be discussed, perhaps some brainstorming, jokes made, etc. etc.
- Snacks are present, much like a party. :-)
- Pay attention to the furniture - there will be less mingling if everyone is permanently ensconced in an immobile lay-z-boy chair :-)

Variant: Pecha Kucha.
If you have a projector and powerpoint, "The idea behind Pecha Kucha is to keep presentations concise, the interest level up and to have many presenters sharing their ideas within the course of one night. Therefore the 20x20 Pecha Kucha format was created: each presenter is allowed a slideshow of 20 images, each shown for 20 seconds each. This results in a total presentation time of 6 minutes 40 seconds on a stage before the next presenter is up. Each event usually has 14 presenters."

Then as before, the rest of the evening is the discussion that the presentations prompt.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:37 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]

First, make sure you have something interesting and topical to say at all times. Read the latest news, get blog/newspaper/TV sides (both left and right) on each topic, and then bring them to work with you. Second, when the guy in the neighboring cubicle leans over and asks if "you think Barry Bonds should be in the hall of fame, because..." stare at his or her chin with a slightly worried expression, as if you're concerned about the shape, but unsure whether now would be a good or bad time to bring it up. Third, scroll through a yellow pages in any country in western Europe, until you find an equally paying job to the one you have now. Take a sabbatical, get on a plane, and settle down amongst baguettes and espressos on the Seine. Once fully installed, your fourth job would be to take in as much as you can from the six months your visa lasts. Finally, when you return to your job in the US, make sure everyone you know has an idea that you went to Europe for a while, for the "culture". This will concern them enough not to talk to you much at all, let alone about Barry Bonds, Britney, or any other budget celebrity. Expect a few queries about the weather, but use the chin technique previously stated.

Seriously though, the environment you find yourself in should be one that is nurturing, not stifling. If the people at work are messing you up, look for a job elsewhere. I hate to say it, but the Canadians even have something to say, and they all own guns too. Good luck!
posted by omnigut at 5:20 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

By the way, I have a problem with the idea about having a "conversation event." Sounds a little forced. If you can't change the place you work, start off by reading something like "an idiot's guide to Freud," and then read Frederick Crew's book, "Follies of the Wise," in which he destroys Freud. Keep this kind of thing up (reading one side and then the other) for a whole range of topics, so when somebody asks you whether you think Christmas is going to be good this year, you can turn to them and ask "do you think that Christmas should, indeed, be a good thing, or whether perhaps we might be better off lessening our children's clinging to fantasies for entertainment and well-being because of the increasingly desensitizing effect it might have on their view of REAL problems in their lives, and how to deal with them...

I work in a pool hall, and entertain drunks. I tell them I don't have an interest in sports, but find myself getting really interested in their lives instead. One guy, a plumber who has a shaved head, tattoos, sunken eyes, giant biceps, and a thick Brooklyn accent, is giving me the most interesting conversations of the last month or two. He's the father of two daughters that are beginning to hate him, because his wife, who is cheating on him with his godson, keeps telling them what a drunk their father is. True or not, he wouldn't spend so much time out of the house if she wasn't making life so difficult for him. Until I asked him several questions about his life, as delicately as I could, I thought he was a complete bore. Stupid me.

Perhaps you'll find, if you keep trying to get others involved in your conversational evolution, that even the idiots at work are worth talking to. And this won't take any reading or philosophizing, you only need to spend a while longer at the water dispenser, or send out a group email to everyone at work with the following:

"Dear everyone,
I'm sorry to send this highly irregular email, but my name is Dave/Danielle, and I've been working here for X years. I sit in cubicle 3B, the one under the ceiling fan, and usually wear a yellow tie. Anyway, I'm getting a little bored with coming to work and having stupid conversations the whole time because I don't really know anyone here deeply. If anybody feels the same way, I'll be getting myself a nice, long glass of cold water from the water dispenser next to the plastic rubber tree in section 3-F, at around 11:45 to 12:10pm. If anybody would like to come down for some no-pressure, idle chat on anything they want to get off their chests, or if anybody who has been harboring a secret, pressing crush on me but haven't had the resolve to follow through on it, would like to come and natter away for the twenty-five minutes we have for lunch, I'll see you then. I, for example, am coming armed with the assertion that "all conversation seems to be about frivolous, dramatic things, and I feel myself getting stupider with every weather comment or sports history debate." If anybody would like to agree or disagree with my contention, or bring a conversation of their own, I'll see you there. This could be fun.


PS, if management gets hold of this, please know this is not a call for another strike. Having been awarded the extra bathroom break all employees of Impersonal and Sons inc. feel highly rewarded and accepted by the company at large, and have every desire to keep working here as long as we are required. In fact, I have decided to set up this possible meeting to increase work-satisfaction, and, therefore, productivity. This is just one way I feel like giving back.

PPS, could somebody bring me a stapler? Bill Lumbergh just stole mine."
posted by omnigut at 5:44 PM on December 31, 2007 [4 favorites]

Trivia night at the pub. This is where I find people who like discussing complex and often obscure topics. For example, last night I went out with a friend I met at trivia night and had a discussion about Late Antique period mystery cults and their impact on modern American foreign policy, which lasted until the beer made pronouncing big words too difficult. Look for a famously difficult quiz night and make friends with the top scoring teams. Worked for me.
posted by cali at 10:31 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

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