Have we lost the art of conversation?

Let’s stop mirroring the one-way traffic of texts, voice-notes and social media stories, and communicate collaboratively, writes Emma Reed


Recently, I stepped off a train feeling drained and disgruntled. I’d spent a 30-minute journey with someone I knew, where I’d made sounds rather than words: ‘Mmmm,’ ‘Oof,’ ‘Euurgh.’ This was because I had barely had a chance to speak. I was caught in the vortex of someone else’s stream of consciousness. I felt that if I’d simply left the ‘conversation’ (in the loosest sense of the word) mid-flow, it wouldn’t have made any tangible difference.

A smorgasbord of emotions flitted through me: tension, frustration, boredom and, bizarrely, a grudging admiration that someone could hold forth with such a blissful lack of awareness – a concept alien to me. This incident was stacked on many others.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been conducting my own very unscientific social experiment in the belief that we are losing the art of conversation. Whether it’s performative point-scoring, people talking over one another, or just blanking, it feels that no one is really listening to one another anymore and, with that, we are losing nuance and enrichment in our lives, and compounding feelings of isolation, even in the company of others.

It’s no surprise that the World Health Organization has declared loneliness a ‘global public health concern’ (you can read 6 surprising truths about it here). It’s as though people are glitching. The monologue seems to have taken hold. And this isn’t helped by social media providing people with a platform to relay the minutiae of their skincare routine, or the contents of their cereal bowl, without interruption or being met with bored expressions.

I’ve found I can bump into people and what should be a conversation turns into a recitation of tasks and timetables, the subtext being they are too busy to chat. Once I’ve been talked through the AA Route Planner for an upcoming journey or been given a breakdown of the ‘to-do’ list, I feel guilty for being the sort of person who has time to stop for a check-in; people seem more at ease with talking over others with all the subtlety of an out-of-control snowplough.

On several occasions, I’ve seen a friend interrupted mid-story and marvelled at their calm as they pause and then resume the thread while I fizz with outrage. The most blatant was when my husband was opposite me at a dinner recently, seated between two people who conducted a conversation over him, until he suggested they swap and sit together instead.

I’ll admit, I’m predisposed to a certain sensitivity surrounding this. As an only child, I grew up observing and listening to adults a lot. There was no sibling noise to have to shout over to be heard. As a result, I’m one of life’s listeners, with a radar set to ensure no one feels excluded.

In a world where people conduct conversations with their phones on speaker in packed trains, I’m not exactly pining for a return to the conversational etiquette befitting a Jane Austen novel – but I am concerned about this slow crumbling, and how it’s affecting the way we relate to each other. I ask clinical psychotherapist Dipti Tait for an insight into my sense of unease…

Tait explains that our reticular activating system, a bundle of nerves in our brain stem, acts as a filter. It’s why, for example, if someone is trying for a baby, they suddenly feel there are more pregnant women around. As I’ve been focusing on dissatisfying conversations, my filter is now set to be more attuned to those. However, Tait agrees that our fast-paced, screen-dominated lives have made us more impatient, and the way in which the pandemic forced everyone to communicate differently and adapt quickly has certainly had an impact.

Without wanting to be reductive, Tait explains that people naturally fall into different camps in the way they communicate, with the fast-paced thinkers leaping onto the next thing on their minds, and the slower-paced ones weighing things up more. Tait talks about people’s style of communication in literally colourful terms: you’re either versions of red, yellow, green and blue, set out in Thomas Erikson’s book, Surrounded By Idiots (Ebury, £10.99), on how to deal with different personality types at work.

‘A high yellow or a high red are really uncomfortable with pauses and silence,’ says Tait. They’ll be more self-referencing in conversation. From our chat, Tait categorises me as a high blue, which has empathic, sensitive, emotionally intelligent traits. My style is likely to be more collaborative.

Tait notes that if we are able to recognise these traits in others, along with some of their more useful elements, it helps us to work towards a middle ground in communication, and create a more satisfying experience. She shows me a Venn diagram illustrating this. For example, someone who may seem critical, judgmental or intense in a conversation is actually someone who is also observant and paying attention.

So how to deal with the more frequent scenario I’m encountering with people talking over each other or interrupting? ‘A high red or high yellow personality can tend to hijack an idea, not on purpose, but because they’re so fast-thinking that whatever someone else has just said they will quickly adapt and make their own.

‘It’s not as calculating as it can seem,’ says Tait. She advises that my temptation to intervene with a ‘Hang on, they were talking’, could offend. Instead, she suggests I immediately go back to the person who has been interrupted, asking them to tell me more, indicating my interest and that I want to give them a platform.

For the ones that bombard me with lists, leaving me muttering, ‘And how are you, Emma?’ it may just be a question of swerving these people where possible, and accepting that they are wired in a way not to ask questions of others.

According to Tait, these are the ‘dominating listeners’ (even if they do little listening). Tait’s website lists the ‘ABCDE’ of different listening styles: active, bored, critical, dominating, and empathic. If we land on an active empathic listener, we’ve struck conversational gold! Tait highlights that, as humans, we all need LAWS, an acronym for being listened to, acknowledged, wanted, and seen. Speaking to Tait has made me realise that I need to take some of those conversational disappointments less personally and see what I can learn from each style.

In an age of voice-notes, texts and rambling ponderings on social media, it’s no wonder in-person interactions are becoming trickier; I get a buzz from a good conversation because sometimes it feels like such a rarity. At the end of last year, I met a friend I had made via Instagram for a coffee in person. Coffee turned into lunch and three hours flew by as we covered the serious and the silly. There was a wonderful balance and ease, and it felt like a blast of the purest conversational oxygen. I felt like a kid let loose at a fairground.

I’m feeling more hopeful, but it’s something we’re all going to need to work harder at. I’m always cheered by thinking about essayist David Sedaris, the maestro of leftfield conversation openers: he once asked a cashier in a supermarket if anyone had ever vomited on the conveyor belt. What I would have given to be part of that chat.

Expert advice: Dipti Tait is a clinical psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, with 20 years of therapeutic experience helping people to navigate the stresses of life calmly, confidently, and successfully. diptitait.com

Read more: How to foster friendships that last

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