HOW CAN WE SAY that conversation is a lost art when people hold forth everywhere and no one appears at a loss for words? Well, chitchat isn’t conversation. Nor is blogging, with its counter-jabs and grandstanding rebuttals. Tweeting isn’t dialogue. All the misinterpreted e-mails and texts should be enough to convince us that, while words fly in all directions, they’re not exactly "smart" bombs.
Conversation is rooted in two Latin words meaning “to associate with” and “to turn around.” We gather in friendly dialogue to turn words around: first one speaking, then another, until the exchange of words turns US around. We should all expect to arrive at a new place in the end. That place will most definitely not be on opposite sides of a wall.
When Socrates taught his students to dialogue, he insisted one speak and the other listen. The listener could reply only after he (always he) repeated the first person’s position. The first speaker had to agree this was a faithful rendering of his ideas before the second person could advance the discussion. In this way, both listener and speaker remained attentive, respectful, and engaged.
Conversation, understood this way, is a truly moral activity. Most talkers simply want to have their say, to talk past whatever was just offered. We don’t engage others in search of truth; we blast one and all with “our” truth. What if we regarded each person, especially those with different perspectives, as a potential source of wisdom? What might we learn?