I wrote my book, and read my audio book for a simple reason. Conversation is the most fun you can have for free, without catching a disease.
My love affair with it probably began with the words ‘no’ and ‘why’, intensifying when I learned two magic phrases: ‘I want it, it’s mine’ and (for emergencies) ‘Didn’t mean to, doesn’t matter’. At six I began to suspect conversation possessed more life-changing powers. Mum explained that a social worker was coming to ask how my little sister and I would feel about having another sibling.
We were nervous, but excited, as we described how we would teach her French, decorate her bedroom, pick out her wardrobe, watch her win gymkhanas on her Palomino – all the vital accomplishments for a living Barbie doll. We’re still waiting for the pony, but we must have said something right, because within months we had Heidi.
It took me longer to appreciate a more fundamental truth: there is no greater mood enhancer than conversation with another person. It’s a holiday from yourself, richer and more dynamic than hearing a good song, reading a funny story, or blasting monsters to pixel smithereens on your computer.
With an old friend, you can pick up a thread you’ve been weaving since you first met, with a stranger, you have an adventure. The person that you are with that other person is always slightly different, and more surprising, than the person you are alone, because you adapt and attune to each other’s rhythm. It is a dance.
That isn’t a metaphor. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point:
‘When two people talk, their volume and pitch fall into balance… Two people may arrive at a conversation with very different conversational patterns. But almost instantly they reach a common ground. We all do it, all the time. Babies as young as one or two days old synchronize their head, elbow, shoulder, hip, and foot movements with the speech patterns of adults. Synchrony has even been found in the interactions of humans and apes. It’s part of the way we are hardwired.’
Conversation doesn’t just transmit thoughts and feelings through words: our personalities and emotions are contagious. This is what makes face-to-face talk so powerful. Not only is a life crammed with conversation more interesting, opening up the wonderlands in our own and others’ minds, but it also charges us up . This is why increasingly popular ideas – like e mail is better than conversation, or that watching TV is more compelling than watching another person’s face – are so frightening. They’re also wrong.
Without conversation, we are less than ourselves. But its skills only come through practice. As studies have found, the single most important factor in a child’s life – and the only one that can predict its future educational attainment – is not the girth of his parents’ wage packet or the size of their house but the amount of words to which a child is exposed. And throughout life, conversation fires our minds and hearts, flexing the muscles we most need in these fast-moving days.
Like any other art, conversation can be done better or worse. I wrote this book because I wanted to know how. And it was a great excuse to salute some of history’s great and terrible talkers.
To me, conversation is the ultimate luxury: fun, good for your health, and the shortest route to pretty much anything you might wish for. Best of all, it’s free.
Have a read.
OUT NOW IN PAPERBACK
Praise for The Art of Conversation:
‘Get off that bloody computer and read this bloody great book. Reclaim the orgasmic pleasures of a bloody good conversation. Don’t let modern technology turn you into an uncommunicative ninny: ingest this book and start conversing…and then start living.’ – Simon Doonan, author of Eccentric Glamour
‘Some of the best ideas are the simplest, and there could hardly be a simpler or better one than this… This is a witty, charming and appropriately garrulous book, drawing on authorities as diverse as Aristotle, Cicero, Voltaire, Tommy Cooper and talk show host Tyra Banks… This smart little book should be placed in every house, like Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms, to turn us once again into a nation of good talkers.’ – Peter Bradshaw, Mail on Sunday
‘A bit of fun by a young genius. The Art of Conversation by Catherine Blyth is a witty meditation upon all aspects of talk. If you give it to a friend it will itself provoke hours of amusing chat as you read out her jokes and her wisdom.’ – A.N. Wilson, Reader’s Digest
It is a treasure trove of literary and historical delights, with each page containing a little gem in the form of a quotation or a factoid… I can imagine The Art of Conversation becoming a film in the same way that Stephen Potter’s One-Upmanship books became School For Scoundrels. In the meantime, people will buy it for the same reason they buy all books: to give themselves something to talk about.’ ― Toby Young, Independent on Sunday
‘Modern man – and woman – have forgotten how to engage larynx and ears. Catherine Blyth teaches the lost art with wit and charm.’ – Harry Mount, author of Amo, Amas, Amat
‘Take the wittiest, most spellbinding dinner companion and put her between book covers; that’s The Art of Conversation by Catherine Blyth. … By turns arch, humane, historical, and hysterically funny, she’s the person you hope you’ll find at the next cocktail party―or the person you’d like to be.’ – Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of Civilized Conversation
‘Wittily mixing up philosophy with literature, blending science with psychology, Blyth persuasively argues the case for banter and badinage – it’s free, its fun and it gets your brain cells firing like the prettiest of firework displays.’ – Eithne Farry, Marie Claire
‘Blyth is a passionate talker, and here she takes us on an entertaining tour of the art of proper conversation…you’ll never be at a loss for words at those awkward socials again!’ ― Glamour
‘It’s fun, it’s fresh and it’s flirty – all the things it teaches that we can be, if only we master the art of conversation’ ― The Resident
‘Brings a professional sensibility to the topic’ ― Scotland on Sunday
‘As Woodrow Wilson once opined of the US President Warren Harding, I am simply in possession of ‘a bungalow mind’. I hope that reading The Art of Conversation has furnished me with a staircase or two’ ― Observer
AND NOW I’VE DONE IT AGAIN…