Chinese debut

The word has spread to China.  News to me that it’s on sale so far away.

Here’s a review from the South China Morning Post:
If someone says “We need to talk”, do you cringe, rejoice or shrug your shoulders? According to Catherine Blyth, author of The Art of Conversation, what was once a simple statement of fact has evolved into nothing less than a threat. Thanks to the age of information, there are umpteen ways of keeping in touch and most of us merrily dash off an e-mail, retreat into our headphones or simply twitter without a second’s thought. Heaven forbid, however, that we might do something as rash as strike up a conversation.

“Our ever-growing means of keeping in touch have unleashed intelligence, creativity, passion and fun, offering countless new directions in which to stretch our hours,” Blyth writes. “Yet these riches leave many of us feeling not so much lucky as time-poor.” 

Conversation – one of life’s greatest and most useful pleasures – is being pushed to the sidelines. Much of the modern world is suffering not so much from conversational constipation as an overall verbal communications breakdown.

This London-based editor and writer has decided to dust off the cobwebs and reignite our powers of speech. Blyth’s thesis is that, in a nutshell, and when it works, conversation can come close to heaven. From sharing a laugh with a stranger to letting off steam with someone who wants to listen, nothing beats a good natter.

Moreover, conversation has its financial rewards and can help smooth speakers earn career brownie points. “Networking is part of its value,” she says.

She proposes that when you chat to people and get on with others, you will get on in life and enjoy it more. Thus, “productivity and morale shot up when a Puerto Rican tobacco company started paying a cigar roller the same hourly rate to down tools, sit in the middle of the work area, read papers aloud, natter and clown”.

“Conversation is second only to sex, a lot less faff, and it really matters,” she says. Her book is a study of the ancient art form of conversation. It opens by examining just what conversation is and isn’t, based on the author’s building-blocks formula of attention + interest = conversation = joy.

Conversation is emphatically not performance art, nor is it scripted or a competition. Instead, it is based on mutual appreciation, co-operation and spontaneity. It should be based on principles of generosity, openness and clarity. This is spelled out across 15 deliciously bossy, jam-packed chapters, heaving with quotes, tips, stories and rather a lot of rules.

Readers wanting a quick fix can also use Blyth’s five maxims: think before you speak, listen more than you speak, find the incentive for talking, never assume that you know what people mean or that they understand you, and take turns.

First and foremost, however, it is important to throw away those other rules that have been drummed into you from birth. Most of us were probably weaned on instructions such as “Don’t talk to strangers” and “Don’t speak until spoken to”.

“Forget it,” says Blyth. “Inhibition is useless.” From now on, we need to stop botching and bungling our conversational overtures. Before opening our mouths, whether in pursuit of that dream job, pay rise or gorgeous date, we must remember that our initial impressions are indelible.

Our greetings must connect, creating a pact that our attention is focused on the person we are speaking to. Greetings are also charms that can open minds and doors, according to the author.

“Greetings broker relationships, playing out social assumptions embedded in our cultural software, and so by their nature transcend finer feeling,” she writes.

We are also warned how easy it is to get it wrong. This can range from having a peculiar voice to wiping your hand before or after shaking, rejecting a compliment or uttering “Oh yes, I’ve heard about you”. Presuming intimacy from the word go is also a big no-no.

“Old hands such as [British] Princess Anne defy coercion,” she says. “When she met the former [British] premier’s wife, Cherie Blair, the other said ‘Call me Cherie’. ‘I’d rather not, Mrs Blair,’ said the princess.”

Rest assured that this conversational re-education is coming from a master – or mistress – of verbal dexterity, who has a wealth of anecdotes and references at her fingertips.

Blyth has nailed this topic with a book that is delightfully erudite, funny and stuffed with conversational gems from a ragbag of society, high and low, ancient and modern.

Dip into this work and you can expect to read the world’s best putdowns, pick-up lines and passing comments by anyone from the ancient Greeks to P.G. Wodehouse, Tuareg nomads, Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton’s press secretary.

In a nutshell

Who should read this? Social wallflowers, public relations professionals, job seekers, networkers and meeters and greeters should all be pleased to find a copy of this book on their desks. However, any human being who has to open their mouth and exchange the time of day with another could well benefit from a little practical conversational help. And even the most conversationally competent surely can’t resist a guide that brilliantly champions the spoken word.  

Why should they read this? We are all bogged down in non-spoken communication. E-mail has practically taken over our lives. And, as has been explained only too well in David Shipley and Will Schwalbe’s excellent book on the subject, Send, in no way does pinging e-mails in all directions help us build better business, social or domestic relationships or get the results we want. Imagine being able to open our mouths and make everybody – including ourselves – feel better off or in a jollier frame of mind.

Five insights

  1. Talking face to face cements   connections that 10,000 e-mails cannot,   writes Catherine Blyth, the author of The Art of Conversation. “Sadly for party-phobes, research has found that newcomers who attend just one corporate social in their first eight months feel greater attachment to a company than those who don’t,” she writes.
  2. Boredom provokes desperation. “History  does not relate if anyone has in fact been  bored to death,” Blyth writes. “To be boring is beyond bad manners. It is theft.” How can we judge if we are unwitting time thieves? At one end of the spectrum are those besotted with their own voice and, at the other, feeble silent types – and try to be neither.
  3. According to research quoted by the  author, financial company directors find  small talk with clients the hardest part of their work. But, although small talk has “always had a bad name”, she notes that “it can be many things: preamble to a meeting, networking, gossip … for geishas, it is work”. It also conjures intimacy, serves as a social compass and works best if we try to be as engaged as possible.
  4. Great conversationalists listen more than  they talk. Conversation should be a  name for shared pleasure, where listening is rated higher than speech and the greatest wits are famed for their great politeness. “If nothing else, drawing out other people is canny social politeness,” says our author. “It can be the path to power … “
  5. What do you want to talk about? “This  can be a question of social life and  death,” says Blyth. In other words, we all need something to say, wherever we are. Topics, she says, must be relevant and accessible, unstable mixtures of attitude and subject and be able to create in themselves. Finally, “questionable subjects whet appetites”.


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