Conversation: Art or Skill?

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Monalyn Gracia / Corbis

As an editor at the New Yorker and then editor in chief at Random House, Daniel Menaker perfected the art of conversation over many a long lunch. But is it an art? In his new book, A Good Talk, Menaker takes a look at the history of conversation and breaks sociability down to a science. Menaker shared his talking points with TIME, offering pointers on topics to avoid and how to escape from the clutches of a bore.

According to your book, you don't consider what we're doing here — a phone interview — to be an actual conversation. Why is that? What makes a conversation a conversation?
What we do when we sit down and talk, I think, is very ancient and essential. And that's why I restrict my definition of conversation to in-person exchanges. Obviously, what we're doing right now is a conversation, but it's of a certain kind. You don't get to see what I look like or what my body language is or what my facial expressions are, so it's missing some important components of that primate ritual.

It's interesting that you use that word. It seems like there is a ritual, in a sense, to the way conversations play out. You identify stages that conversations go through.
When people meet each other for the first or second time, there is a sort of architecture in their talk. People are tentative at first. There's a certain kind of greeting formula that takes place as things develop. People become aware of things in common. Sometimes it's meaningless, like they both spent a week in the Ukraine, or neither of them has ever seen a football game. But it establishes, even speciously, common ground. And then after that what happens is that certain roles are assumed. Sometimes it turns out that one person is seeking advice, sometimes it turns out that one person is looking for reassurance. And then you drift in and out of those roles in a spontaneous way.

When I was first started working in New York, I had a friend who convinced me that the best way to become a better conversationalist was to spend a lot of time in bars. Part of the rationale was that other than drinking or maybe playing pool, all you do at a bar is talk to people, many of whom you don't actually know. Is this a valid strategy?
The problem is, it depends on what kind of person you are. If you like that kind of slightly alcohol-fueled intimacy or quick sharing, it's fine. But if you're a little standoffish or a little reserved, it's a bit harder. A lot of people will tell you that volunteering is the best way to start conversations. There's no alcohol, you're doing charitable work, and you don't have your eye on somebody across the room. It's more altruistic, and you'll probably find like-minded people. So I would say let your nature be your guide as to where you're going to look. There are all types of ways of meeting new groups of people. And if you select the right ... you know what? I'm boring myself. Please help me out here.

Well, that's a good segue into another thing you write about, which is boredom. What is the best way to deal with someone who is boring you in a conversation?
That is absolutely one of the hardest questions. The basic structure of a conversation with a boring person is that you have to entertain yourself. They're not going to do it. Most people respond to [being asked], "Are there people whom you really just don't talk to?" It's a strange topic of conversation. But I found that it's almost foolproof. Of course, you can't just pop it on somebody. You have to introduce it in a way that is relevant and makes sense, but almost everyone responds to it. Top tens are good. CDs on a desert island. Then you get into arguments about whether you can have whole catalogs of CDs or just one CD. Is it all of Beethoven, or just one string quartet? What happens is when you do a category like that, the discussion often deteriorates in a good way into actual substantive conversation. But it takes work to talk to a bore. And you have to save yourself at some point. I always say, Keep an empty glass — that's an old formula. If you're standing up, make sure your glass is near empty at all times. That can lead to drunkenness, though.

What would you say to the standard piece of advice about staying away from talk about religion and politics?
I think it's better to go very gently out onto thin ice if you don't know your context. If there's a chance that you may offend, I suggest that religion and politics — religion especially these days — is an arena of conversation that should be entered very gingerly.

Has writing this book made you anxious around other people? Do people notice you looking at them in conversation?
Fool that I am, it never occurred to me. I once knew a therapist, and I said to him, "When you go to a party or a dinner, you must think about people in terms of what their hang-ups and problems are, right?" And he said, "No, I just throw it out the window. Obviously if someone is flagrantly neurotic or OCD, I'm going to notice it as a professional. But generally I manage to keep my social life strictly social." I would say what's happened with me is the same thing. People say, "How am I doing?" Or, "You better be sparkling!" I find that within about two minutes, I can jettison all that, and the other person does too. Generally speaking, I don't take out a scorecard and start grading the other person. That would be exhausting.