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The Philosophy Behind Conversations

July 3, 2009 6:12 pm

This article has been written by James Ee Suen Zheng @ Eternity in an hour. If you like what you are reading here – you should check out and follow his blog Eternity in an hour for more awesome stuff like this.


The Conversationalist

Sir Isaiah Berlin is one of the greatest conversationalists who ever lived. A friend commented that Berlin would soar like a trapeze artist through every imaginable subject without a touch of showmanship. The same can be said of Denis Diderot who spark conversations with absolute sincerity, subtle without obscurity, varied in its forms, dazzling in its flights of imagination, fertile in ideas and capacity to inspire ideas in others.

Everything from great brilliance, memory and Voltairian wit is valuable to sustain a lively conversation. While other things like charm is helpful, some people have successfully managed without it. Similar to the past as it is in our current environment, being a good conversationalist is one of the pinnacle of life’s pleasures and a necessary skill in life.

What then constitutes the tenets of a good conversationalist?

The principle that is it rude to interrupt another speaker can be traced back to Cicero’s writing in 44BC. Cicero continues further by noting that a good conversation requires alternation of priority among participants. The core principles of a good conversationalist are:

  1. Speak clearly
  2. Speak easily but not too much
  3. Do not interrupt
  4. Be courteous
  5. Deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully in lighter ones
  6. Never criticize people behind their backs
  7. Stick to the subject of general interest
  8. Do not talk about yourself
  9. Never ever lose your temper

The lesser rules (not by Cicero but by Dale Carnegie) are:

  1. Remember people’s names
  2. Be a good listener
  3. Smile
  4. Talk in terms of the other person’s interest
  5. Make the other person feel important

The Theory of Politeness

What happens when conflicts of interest occurs between two people who are engage in a conversation? What if I must tell the person that I disagree, disapprove or dismiss what he says? Peter Drucker states that manners is an imperative when it comes to human relations. He goes on further by stating that that bright people – especially young bright people – often do not understand that manners are the ‘lubricating oil’ of an organization.

There are four main possibilities to avoid direct confrontation:

  1. I am going to change the subject
  2. I am going to change the subject, is that alright?
  3. I am sorry to disturb you, but I want to change the subject
  4. Gosh it is getting cold in here

The fourth is perhaps the most indirect and polite strategy.

One should always remember that co-operation is essential in a successful and pleasurable conversation. In essense, what sets a good conversation apart from other similar activities like lectures, debates arguments and meetings is co-operation. Instead of dominance and proving who is right and wrong, what is essential is equal distribution of speaker rights, mutual respect, spontaneity and informality.

“Talk beyond that which is necessary to the purposes of actual business!”

This are some of the conversation principles from the French elite in the late 17th and early 18th centuries:

  1. Politesse – sincere good manners
  2. Esprit – wit
  3. Galanterie – gallantry
  4. Complaisance – obligingness
  5. Enjouement – cheerfulness
  6. Flatterie – polite flattery

Duc de La Rochefoucauld distinguished between

  • Eloquent silence
  • Mocking silence
  • Respectful silence

Mastery of such ‘air and tones’ are granted to only a few!

Original article by: James Ee Suen Zheng,  Eternity in an hour

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