A conversation, like dancing, has some rules, although I’ve never seen them stated anywhere. The objective of conversation is to entertain or inform the other person while not using up all of the talking time. A big part of how you entertain another person is by listening and giving your attention. Ideally, your own enjoyment from conversation comes from the other person doing his or her job of being interesting. If you are entertaining yourself at the other person’s expense, you’re doing it wrong.
That’s Scott Adams, concluding that roughly three-quarters of the world’s population doesn’t know how to carry on a conversation.
It seems to me that conversational skills, friendship-creation and intimacy-building are the kinds of things that countries should invest in teaching their populations. It sounds silly to systematically teach populations to make small-talk, or welcome someone they don’t know, or transition from acquaintance to friend. But our social lives have as great an impact on our happiness as our academic or professional lives. Besides, study after study shows that social support is more important to our health than almost anything else, including things like smoking, poor diet and alcohol consumption.
A population that has the tools to build friendships is more likely to move from city to city, increasing labor market effectiveness. They’re also more likely to build steady marriages and social groups once they’re there, and less likely to rely on the state. This is a win-win.
Besides, this really isn’t that hard. Adams mentions Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, which apparently has some chapters on this.
The rules of conversation include: Relation (keep your contributions on topic), Quantity (don’t say more/less than you should), Quality (don’t lie, don’t exaggerate, don’t mislead), Manner & Tone (be polite and don’t be ambiguous), Relations with partner (keep your contributions tailored to the knowledge/beliefs/preferences of your conversational partner), Turn Taking (follow the cues that indicate when it is and is not appropriate to contribute to the conversation), and Rule Violations (clearly signal the reason for violating any of the aforementioned rules, e.g., when using sarcasm, bringing up a difficult subject, or changing the topic).
I traveled through Italy with five Danish guys a few summers ago. At the airport in Rome, we somehow ended up buying an extra ticket to the central train station. I suggested we find someone to sell the extra ticket to, but the Danes wanted to just get on the train and throw the extra ticket away. Eventually I walked up to someone in line, told them our situation, and they bought our ticket for the same price we paid for it. Problem solved.
On the train, one of the Danish guys said to me ‘I could never walk up to some stranger like that.’ He would have rather wasted 10 euros on an extra ticket than talk to someone he didn’t know.
I’m sorry, but that is a handicap. Small talk, politeness and meeting strangers are learned skills, just like tying your shoes or filling out a job application. Populations that are systematically equipped with these skills will be a better work force and form a healthier society.
Politicians should take this seriously. I really have no idea why countries haven’t embarked on pilot projects to beef up conversation skills in the population. And, while we’re at it, we could all be better dancers.