Conversation Skills

From the most interesting conversation I had today: what is the ability to engage in good conversation? My friend and I identified quick wit, understanding and comprehension of your interlocutor’s statements, and the ability to truly argue.¬† True argument we defined not as insisting that one is right but rather to intellectually spar and be able to simultaneously defend one’s own position while conceding merit in the other person’s as an exercise to move closer to truth; valuing one’s argument opponent as having a position of potential merit which, if argued for convincingly enough, one might adopt.

More importantly, are these sorts of things attributes of oneself, or are they skills which can be developed and cultivated? We both assumed the latter, and further concluded that those kinds of skills require practice and regular exercise, and if the exercise of good conversational skills is not engaged in, the skills will atrophy. Do activities like text messaging, facebooking, e-mail, and (oh noes!) blogging cause those conversational skills to atrophy, by making those who engage in that sort of communication assimilate and set forth information in a fundamentally different way? We both concluded “yes,” but I’m making this post to solicit your points of view as well.

After all, the point of argument is to move closer to the truth through the mechanisms of reason, evidentiary citation, and persuasion, and I value your arguments whether or not I adopt them as my own.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. I think some new media have the capacity to foster conversational skills more than others. I have a hard time celebrating Twitter, since I can’t really accept that well-reasoned arguments can be made exclusively with 140-character apothegms. The same with text messaging. And the relative anonymity has the tendency to bring out the worst in people who would otherwise try to behave more in keeping with polite conversation.

    However, one need look no further than some of the better comment threads at the host blog to see that conversation can flourish on the internet.

  2. I am blessed to have gotten on the internet in the first wave of the internet’s regression to the mean (post-windows but pre-AOL).

    In those days, there were a great many more folks willing to explain the intricate rules of grammar (and were more than happy enough to diagram sentences) in response to a poorly worded argument than there seem to be today.

    In order to be taken seriously in an extended conversation, not only did you have to put together a decent argument, you had to put together a decent sentence. Folks who were unwilling to write pretty clean copy were roundly mocked. Upon occasion, some wag would take it upon himself to “translate” the argument back and forth between the poorly-formed writer and the well-formed community… but that just seemed to make things worse instead of better. (It was a weird time where someone who “+y|)3d l1|<3 +h15" was taken more seriously than someone who failed to capitalize the first letter of the first word of a sentence.)

    It was AOL that ruined everything. When you had entire groups of people defending (DEFENDING!) mixing up "their" and "there" because you could still see what was meant, it was the beginning of the end of nigh-universal good syntax on the 'tubes.

    The foundation for a decent argument in any text-based environment is good syntax.

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