The Columnist

art of conversation


Doctor Miller once gave a lecture entitled “Why do Women Tell Jokes So Badly?” Before women could tear him limb from limb, he came up with a very flattering explanation.
         Men tell jokes, he said, because they have no conversation to fall back on, so they have to fall back on jokes and stories and anecdotes. Women, on the other hand, want to find out more about their dinner or party companions, and therefore make real conversation. They don’t need the crutch of jokes.
         He was quite right. Real conversation is about people. Real conversation is not about any of the following: ’Any idea what the latest Test score is? ‘Seen that hilarious TV advert where two men enter a pub in a baby submarine?’
         My son worked for a while in a newspaper cutting agency, where he had to read every paper every day, and he said he hadn’t realised until then how much of British pub conversation was based on stuff from the news. He would overhear people saying ‘Did you read about that camel that swam the Channel?
No where did you see that’, and my son would startle them by sidling up to them and saying softly, ‘Guardian, Wednesday, page 18’.
The best way to start a conversation with a stranger is to find out what they do. The most tactful way of doing this is saying: ‘So what’s your line, then?’ If they say ‘London-Brighton’ or ‘I’m descended on my mother’s side from the Sackville-Wests’, you are justified in ending the conversation there and then.
One peculiar habit of British conversation is that we are very polite with strangers and very rude to friends. So, if you meet a doctor for the first time, you immediately ask civilly what branch of medicine he is in, but you meet a doctor who is an old mate, it is more common to ask how many patients he has killed since you last met.
The lowest form of conversation is to summarise the plot lines of films or TV soaps that the other people haven’t seen. The highest form of conversation is to invent so many witty lines and have such amusing experiences that you become famous as a conversationalist, which is something you will live to regret – Oscar Wilde was asked out to dinner chiefly so that people could listen to him perform, and no dinner is worth that sort of thing.
Indeed, good conversationalists finally decided that the only thing to do was to insist on being paid for it, for which purpose they have been renamed after-dinner speakers.
  A Warning                                 
         Middle class conversation is largely about the three most boring subjects in the world – schools, houses and cars. This is because the middle-classes are not necessarily boring, but because they genuinely use conversation as an exchange and mart of information – the best schools, the best doctors, the best tradesmen and so on.
         They also use this sort of information to categorise you.
         In Edinburgh, for instance, you can tell a person by where their children go to school. I know a woman who moved to Edinburgh, and was asked where her children would go to school. She said she hadn’t got any. A moment’s thought, then: ‘But where would you send them if you did have children?’

‘The Art of Entertaining’ Martell Cognac 1994


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