How can I cultivate / find deeper conversations with people? In university it was always easy to find people ready to talk about philosophy, politics, psychology, etc. But now, as I have gotten older and supplanted myself into the corporate world, the art of conversation seems to have been lost. It would appear that most people are resigned to talking about kids, jobs, and pop culture. Am I just in the wrong social circles or does this type of small talk permeate our culture? I long to attend a French salon or dinner party whose primary purpose is the art of conversation. Where can I find groups of people who like engaging, face-to-face conversation? How can I steer people away from talking about what they saw on CNN and towards something with a little more substance?''
I can relate to this questioner. I wonder how many of you out there find that it's hard to have a conversation on any issue of substance with most people you encounter?
Those of you who work in, say, an academic setting might have colleagues who are more interested in ideas and non-trivial topics than people in less cerebral occupations, although this is not always the case. It is true, in my experience, that academics might have a more intellectual set of interests than non-academics, but they are also subject to liberal groupthink more than people in other lines of work.
I noticed that over the Holidays I found that most conversations drifted into the territory of pop culture phenomena such as reality TV shows and the latest antics of certain celebrities. Of course in conversations like that, I may as well be among people who are speaking an unintelligible language.
In any generation and time, probably, the majority of people are inclined towards lightweight conversations, and that's not a bad thing in and of itself. It would be dreary if people only talked about ultra-serious, life-and-death matters. It's natural, especially among family and close friends to talk about more personal and intimate concerns: family, personal relationships, maybe work and home issues.
It's often wise to stay away from the controversial topics unless you know that everybody else is much on the same page, and in general agreement; feelings tend to run high on party politics and religion, especially these days. And that in itself may account for a greater tendency to talk about trivial and inconsequential things: inane TV shows, movies, sports, and other such lightweight, presumably inoffensive topics. It is navigating a minefield to introduce political discussions in a group where people may be on opposite sides of the political fence. In more civil times, it used to be that partisan politics was a matter of polite disagreement. Now, the divide between Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative verges on open hostility. The only thing most Americans seem to agree on is choice of entertainment; there are only a few of us who are conscientious objectors to popular culture.
I am not a TV snob, although I am coming to agree with those who say TV is a waste of time at best and a propaganda-laden assault on traditional civilization at worst.
Making small talk is obviously a safe way of interacting with people, and it is preferable to getting involved in a heated exchange over something controversial and possibly alienating someone permanently. These days people do take their politics extremely seriously, and with good cause. We live in a time of crisis for the West and for this country, and many people realize this, even though they may avoid acknowledging it to themselves or to others.
So they cope by avoiding the reality and focusing on the trivial and ephemeral.
And some people are simply by nature concerned with only those things which have an immediate relevance to them and their families. That's fine; family is ultimately the most important worldly concern, then neighborhood, friends, and the circles which extend outward from there. It's harder to care about what is happening in some distant city on the other side of the continent. Washington, D.C. is an abstraction for many people, and they rightly focus on local and immediate concerns.
I've found, too, that women and men differ in their inclination to talk about serious subjects and ideas. I've noticed that women tend to prefer more personal matters and men are more inclined to discuss politics and impersonal subjects. An older female friend used to tell of how she, as a little girl, liked to listen in on the menfolks' conversation, rather than stay with the womenfolks. When told that she should go join the women, she answered that 'all they talk about is babies and chickens and false teeth.' I am not one for talking about babies, chickens, and false teeth, though nowadays the topics are more along the lines of men, diets, fashion, and kids, depending on the marital state of the woman in question. I can chat with women about some of those things; I like fashion and shopping and the culinary arts. I enjoy cooking and I enjoy children. But I also care about the wider world beyond, and I know that for the sake of home, family, and children we have to take account of the wider world and the world of politics and strife out there.
So are people more concerned with trivial matters and small talk these days? Is it still possible to have an intelligent, thoughtful conversation about ideas and the weightier, more eternal matters? Are people withdrawing more into their personal cocoons, or are people becoming more politicized and polarized?
What's the state of things for the rest of you in your circles out there? And is it possible to stimulate real discussion and real thought among people these days? If so, how do we go about it?
Is the internet where it's at? Can we find ways to discuss things out there in the real world? Or can we, ideally, find a way to make both work?
It seems clear to me that getting people talking and thinking, and discussing the state of our world is vital at this time, especially with the election season underway, and our nation at a crossroads.