Can We Talk?

No, I don’t mean “Do you have some time to talk?” I mean, really — are we able to have a conversation?

In an interesting column, Pamela Druckerman describes her observation, and her learnings, of cultural differences in conducting conversations in the French, the British and the American styles. The French style, she writes, is to seek out ways to prove someone wrong or skewer them “with a biting remark.” Their tendency, developed over hundreds of years’ experience, is to reward “clever, erudite and often caustic wit, aimed at making rivals look ridiculous.”

I spend too much time watching “talking heads” commenting on the political and economic topics of the day. The most tiresome of these shows – the ones that lose my interest most quickly – are those which are dominated by biting remarks and clever, often caustic, wit. Yes, I know that the purpose of TV is to entertain, not to educate. But I turn to all media, including TV, to learn – and learning something useful or reliable is more difficult when you have to wade through battles of wit and shows of cleverness, usually conducted at rising volume levels until – almost mercifully – they cut away for a commercial.

This style isn’t banter, it isn’t conversation, it isn’t discussion and it certainly isn’t learning. This is competition to get in the most barbs, the last shot. And it is used often enough to have spilled over into real life.

How do you talk to friends and colleagues about real issues? It seems every conversation – whether a business meeting or lunch with friends – must first (and sometimes last) engage in sharp exchanges of clever statements, with “real discussion” sandwiched in between, if there’s time.

Can we talk? It seems like we need more practice – and more role models.

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