Friday, February 1, 2008

Comparative advantages of conversation

After dinner yesterday, my tall friend Chris (who loves to be marginalized) lamented the current state of his dinner table chats. His worry stemmed from the fact that one person will often have substantially more information a given subject than the others in the conversation, and it leads to a telling of facts instead of the interactive discussion that it should be.

Is this why serious business people like Ayn Rand's protagonists in Atlas Shrugged never talk to each other? The written word is undoubtedly a much more efficient way of processing information than a spoken one, but I think that conversations can offer at least a few comparative advantages. Here's a few ideas:

a) Playing games. I loved doing this back when I was a camp counselor, but most adults either oppose them on odd moral grounds, can't handle the competition, or don't think that they will be fun. Jim Halpert organizes games all the time in The Office, but I get the feeling that if I worked there his micromanaging personality might get on my nerves.

b) Debates. These days, we think of debates as including a podium, stands to make both speakers the same height, and more make-up than Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson's War. But there's no reason that non-politicians can't have debates as well. The next time you and a friend have a disagreement over about a topic, it might be fun to both agree to research the topic, and the next time you meet for coffee, debate it. Spectators would be encouraged, and they could ask questions like the living stereotypes from the YouTube debates. You could send each other the material you plan to cite before the debate, so that both people are on the same page, much like an attorney would. You could even dispute whether such evidence should be admitted and everything. Ah, the joys of pseudo-intellectualism.

c) Guided meditation. Never tried this, but I imagine it might be pretty sweet.

d) Mitigating worries and fears. If there's one thing that always helps ease my social and metaphysical anxieties, it is talking to somebody else about it. Almost without exception, the person who you are talking to will be less worried than you yourself are, and they can help you put your petty problems in perspective. When I'm lost, I find that nobody else knows what's going on either; we're all in this circus together.

The only problem is that the others at the table will probably resent the person who suggests these improvements. That's the price of a chance at influence.

PS, are there any good books on conversations? Atlas Shrugged is eating me alive right now, but I need to stick to the path.