The characteristics of conversation
by Chetan Parikh
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In a classic book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on mass psychology.


“Knowing that nowadays in sociology and psychology conversation has become a fashionable subject and that it has taken so long to overcome indifference and arouse interest in this essential and elementary phenomenon, we can see even more clearly just how commendably precise Tarde's thinking was! Trying to study conversation in total isolation makes his ideas seem even madder, and hence more correct. He did not merely indicate the subject, of course, but also drew up the project. And first of all we must know what is understood by conversation. What, Maupassant wondered, was conversation?


A mystery! It is the art of never appearing boring, of being able to say everything in an interesting way, of being pleasing on any topic that comes to hand and fascinating when talking of trifles. How can we define this way of touching things gently with words, of gently tossing supple words around, that kind of gentle smile with an idea or two that conversation must be? (Maupassant, 1979: 123)


One thing is certain. Talking is not conversing, or vice versa, for the conversationalist has to make use of a whole arsenal of skills - looks, inflections of the voice, pleasingly effective body language and so on and surrounds himself with a particular atmosphere that we call charm. Like Tarde, therefore, we should restrict the word ‘conversation’ to indicating those dialogues in which we talk to others to interest and amuse them, sometimes out of politeness, sometimes out of pleasure in each other's company and most frequently for the pleasure of talking. This rules out all those discussions which are not disinterested and gratuitous, but have an ulterior motive beyond that of the enjoyment of those engaged in them: diplomatic or military negotiations, for example, or legal cross-examinations or scientific discussions. Tarde made an exception in the case of flirting and social talk, for the fact that their aims to flatter and charm and so on and so forth - are so transparently obvious does not cut out the play and the pleasure involved in them, and in fact does quite the opposite.


In his view, engaging someone in conversation meant holding his attention and influencing his mind. No other social relationship could produce deeper interpersonal penetration or greater influence on their thoughts than conversation. This is what he has to say on the matter:


In bringing them into contact it causes them to communicate with each other by means of an influence that is as irresistible as it is unconscious. Hence it is the most powerful agent of imitation and the propagation of feelings, ideas and modes of action. A speech that carries its audience along with it and is applauded is often less suggestive simply because it is clear that it sets out to be persuasive. People talking together influence each other in close proximity by means of the tone of voice they adopt and the way they look at each other and not only by the kind of language they use. We are right to call a good conversationalist a charmer in the magical sense of the word.  (Tarde, 1910: 85)


Quite calmly, as if the whole thing were self-evident, Tarde declares that conversation owes its whole effectiveness to its ability to produce effects similar to those produced by hypnosis. That would make it in many ways like interpersonal direct suggestion.


The other characteristic of conversation, that it is egalitarian and recreates equality in a universe of recrudescent inequality, has consequences at the general social level. In one of Tarde's posthumous notes we find these words:


In doing so, it synthesises all the forms of influence of one mind on another. Because of the complex nature of its influence, it can be seen as the embryonic form of social relationships. Its reciprocal influence makes of it the least-noticed and most powerful agent of social levelling.


Suggestion, equality and pleasure are the three words which spell out the characteristics of conversation. But monologue comes before dialogue. We must suppose, Tarde says, that in the early days of the human race, in the first family or human group, a single individual (and who could he be but the father?) would speak and the others would imitate him. After a long period of imitation, everyone learned to speak and converse. That is why we see vertical monologues, downwards from the ruling leader to the group and upwards from the obedient and acquiescent group to the leader.


It was not until later that communication between superior and inferior and vice versa became reciprocal. Parallel monologues changed into dialogues. In short, language was in the first instance the leader's language, ordering, warning, threatening and condemning. Later, copied and imitative, it also became the language of followers, approving, applauding, repeating and flattering. Finally, in dialogue, it was transformed into language for speaking. Aiming at neither condemning nor obeying, it was language given to others.


Tarde examines and describes in great detail all the circumstances leading to the development of conversation, noting, too, that the tone and content of our talk are reflected in the physical positions we adopt. In his view, conversations held while the participants are seated are the weightiest and most serious, but the ‘lounging conversations’ that the Romans engaged in in their triclinia, which were both fluent and unhurried, seem to have been the most effective. The peripatetic conversations of the Greeks, he maintains, showed their quick and animated minds. He also notes that the presence or absence of a room specifically used for conversation is a distinctive feature of social classes and civilisations. Wealthy Greeks and Romans had one, and from the sixteenth century the French and Italians, who imitated them, began to create salons. This was an invention of the aristocracy, but it was popularised by the middle classes, who made it the focal point of even the smallest apartment. (The disappearance of the salon and its replacement by the salle de sejour, which is merely a living-room, could thus be seen as striking evidence of the decline of French society.) At the lower levels of society there were only embryonic salons and circles, and conversation largely took place outside the home, in cafes and bistros and the like.


Nothing was omitted or neglected in Tarde's list. He discusses the time allotted to conversation and class variations in it, women's gossip and so on. There are two major underlying themes in the explanations he offers. The first is that conversation enriches the intelligence and language of a society, the second is that it is an antidote to absolute power. He saw a close link between it and changes in opinion:


There is a close link between the functioning of conversation and changes in opinion, on which the vicissitudes of power depend. Where opinion changes little and slowly and remains almost immutable, conversation is infrequent, reticent and limited to a narrow range of gossip. Where it is mobile, agitated and moves from one extreme to another, conversation takes place frequently and is bold and emancipated. (Tarde, 1910: 133)


Rightly or wrongly, he thought that conversation restrained absolute power and safeguarded freedom. The reader senses a nostalgia for the old communal life, a sadness at the disappearance of salons and clubs that made and unmade reputations and also an idealisation of that ancient democracy that was born and died with discussions on the agora:


Politically speaking, conversation was, before the press came into being, the only curb on government and the impregnable fortress of all freedoms. It created reputations and endowed prestige, and glory and hence power were in its gift. Its tendency was to make those engaged in it equal by making them alike and it destroyed hierarchies by making them explicit. (Tarde, 1910: 126)


So liberty and equality depended on it, and the proof was to be found in the literary salons of the eighteenth century, those intellectual laboratories where a good number of those ideas that the French Revolution disseminated more widely and put into practice were shaped, tested and launched. Of course, Tarde took effects for causes, symptoms for the malady and conversation for a necessary condition for equality and liberty, whereas we would put things the other way round. As soon as hierarchy intervenes, the twofold monologue dismantles dialogue and the desire to command and obey undermines the pleasure of talking. With regard to liberty, nothing could be clearer: despots distrust conversation, watch it closely and use every means to stop their subjects conversing. Any government wishing to remain stable and in firm control of the machinery of state has no other option than to forbid, control and spoil the pleasure conversation gives. In France in particular, he writes, if one wanted to regain the order of bygone times,


those primitive eras in which there was no conversation outside the narrow circle of the family, one would have to start by re-introducing universal taciturnity. In such a case, even universal suffrage would be totally unable to overthrow anything. (Tarde, 1910: 137)


Words of wisdom indeed. Although it is not yet universal, the semi-universal silence that co-exists with universal suffrage in many countries illustrates Tarde's ideas perfectly. There is a massive eloquence in the leaden silence of dictatorships. Basically, a study of our power systems in terms of the conversations they encourage or outlaw would be one of the most fascinating outlets for the talents of a contemporary sociologist or psychologist, much more so than many of their current investigations. Their criterion could be that a country where people do not talk for the sake of talking is simply one where people do not talk at all and where the depressingly familiar phrase ‘walls have ears’ determines what they say.


Walls have always had ears, but when the phrase was used in the past it referred primarily to neighbours eavesdropping on quarrels and reconciliations from behind party walls. And Tarde, of course, certainly did not foresee the extraordinary innovation of hidden microphones that our own age was to introduce. We can now trace and record any private conversation at any distance without the participants knowing anything about it, and telephone-tapping means that we can capture any messages received and exchanged through that medium. Technical progress of that Kind is at once a tribute to the power of conversation and a means of killing it at birth by introducing suspicion into the most elementary and innocent exchanges.”