Decoding the Rules of Conversation

Thanks to Laura A for linking this article, where the writer offers interesting observations on how conversations among friends differ in France, England, and America. Perhaps she’ll share something about what makes Italian conversation Italian!

The key to French conversation:

Life at Versailles was apparently a protracted battle of wits. […] Granted, France has changed a bit since Versailles. But many modern-day conversations make more sense once you realize that everyone around you is in a competition not to look ridiculous. When my daughter complained that a boy had insulted her during recess, I counseled her to forget about it. She said that just wouldn’t do: To save face, she had to humiliate him.

Wow, no thanks! How about England?

It’s dizzying to switch to the British conversational mode, in which everyone’s trying to show they don’t take themselves seriously. The result is lots of self-deprecation and ironic banter. I’ve sat through two-hour lunches in London waiting for everyone to stop exchanging quips so the real conversation could begin. But “real things aren’t supposed to come up,” my husband said. “Banter can be the only mode of conversation you ever have with someone.”

Okay, maybe not that either.

Unfortunately, I’d say the writer’s description of American conversation is accurate.

After being besieged by British irony and French wit, I sometimes yearn for the familiar comfort of American conversations, where there are no stupid questions. Among friends, I merely have to provide reassurance and mirroring: No, you don’t look fat, and anyway, I look worse.

It might not matter what I say, since some American conversations resemble a succession of monologues. A 2014 study led by a psychologist at Yeshiva University found that when researchers crossed two unrelated instant-message conversations, as many as 42 percent of participants didn’t notice.

Yes, true enough. Too often I find myself in groups where the most important factor is airtime—I’ll act like I’m listening while you talk so that you’ll act like your listening when it’s my turn. I don’t know that has always been this way—I distinctly remember the shift on talk radio from “What’s your question?” to “What say you?”—but that’s how it is now.

My own observation on American conversation is that, when it turns “meaningful”, it often becomes an unhealthy mixture of “Ain’t it awful!” and “Those people!”. Which is awkward for me, since I tend to think life on balance is pretty darn good, and I like most people in spite of their different outlooks and behaviors. Poor Pollyanna-ish me!

One thought on “Decoding the Rules of Conversation

  1. Rick, I tried to answer that question about Italian conversation myself. The only thing I could come up with is that many Italians are very openly affectionate (not necessarily with strangers, but they’re definitely a notch up from the US among friends, even in “reserved” Turin). And probably they are a bit earthy as well. But they can also hold enormous grudges and they do love to complain! Since I’m just coming into my own with the language, which is where you pick up a lot of these cultural insights, I’ll have to hold off on any definitive judgment, though. That sort of understanding takes years, I think.

    About Americans filibustering: I’ve lived in the US long enough, understand English all to well sometimes, and what the article says is painfully true.

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