I recently had a conversation about conversations with a friend. She was bemoaning the fact that conversation appears to be becoming a lost art. After doing some reading on the topic. I  found that Cicero had a few pretty sensible things to say on it. Now, I do realise that he was around a VERY long time ago – he was a Roman philosopher, after all, and died in (approx.) 43BC, but the points he makes seem to me to be as valid now as (I assume) they were then.

He suggested that conversationalists bear the following in mind:

  • Speak clearly and with ease – but don’t overdo it and ramble on interminably.
  • Try to ensure that you don’t prevent others from having a turn to speak.
  • Adopt a tone that’s appropriate to the topic of conversation.
  • It’s a good idea to avoid criticising people in their absence – it’s demeaning to all concerned.
  • Try to keep your topics of conversation to those of general interest.
  • A thing to remember is that talking about yourself has pretty limited audience appeal – you’re just not that interesting to everyone.
  • Conversations usually draw to a natural conclusion, so allow them to rather than dragging them out endlessly.

Most importantly, bear in mind that polite and respectful interaction is a key to good conversation: don’t interrupt – and keep your temper in check at all times

I imagine that all of those points sound perfectly reasonable to most people. After all, I’m pretty sure we all want to speak with assurance, not be boring or rude and avoid offending others if possible. In which case, why do so many people seem to ‘grab the speaking baton’ and just not let go, resulting in one-sided, rude or thoughtless conversations?

Perhaps Cicero could have added that we would all be well served if we tuned in to the body language of the person/people we’re talking to. Doing so provides a host of clues as to whether they’re engaged in the conversation or simply either startled rabbits or captives to our monologue. (Admittedly tricky in online conversations, in which case refer back to Cicero’s key points re conversation.)


In short, conversations are about two or more people making connections, finding a common language, taking turns to speak, being courteous and, in no small part, non-verbal communication. So how does it all go wrong – when it does?

There seem to be a number of common pitfalls, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all fallen into one or more of them; I certainly have:

  • Reacting to the content of the conversation in an aggressive way – this generally ends up getting a bit personal and turns a conversation into a win/lose scenario, rather than a sharing of information. An alternative I’ve had some success with is to take a deep breath and to try for a neutral response – this usually gives me a space in which to regroup so that I can redirect the point and keep my temper reigned in. The outcome is that I feel in control and don’t end up looking silly.
  • Not listening – this is when you zone out a bit or start thinking about a related point or are simply waiting to take your turn and say your piece. The thing is, though, that that’s not conversation and, as I’ve discovered, can end up with you being caught out when a question is directed your way. Active participation requires that you pay attention to the speaker and notice their verbal and non-verbal cues. Try to imagine and action the sorts of responses you’d like to get if you were the speaker.
  • Not interested – this is the trickiest one for me. My attention always tends to slide when I’m not interested in a topic. I’ve had some success in simply moving the conversation along by slipping in a transition sentence – this is a sentence that’s sort of relevant, but that works to shift the focus of the conversation. Something like ‘Oh, before I forget, I wanted to tell you…’ or ‘I was wondering if…’ They’re polite redirects and usually work. Well, often work. Might work 🙂
  • Dominating the conversation – the answer to this one is body language. If the other people in the group are pulling away, avoiding eye contact, fiddling with things in their pockets – that sort of thing – you’re losing them or have already lost them. One way around this is to try to avoid your favourite topic, at least sometimes, since that’s probably an area where you’re likely to take over and dominate the conversation. But if you’re already in it – well, just take a breath and move on. Really, just let go – you don’t need (or own) the conversational baton. Give others a chance and you’ll find that everyone enjoys the conversation more – because then it is a conversation.
  • Conversational narcissism – closely related to the last point, actually, but more along the lines of always steering a conversation back to oneself. We all do it to some extent, but if a conversation is what you’re interested in, then try to ensure that you don’t shift the focus onto to yourself too often.

It’s probably impossible to follow all of Cicero’s conversational guidelines in every conversation – people are people, after all. We will inevitably find ourselves not only the target of conversational pitfalls at times, we’ll also be the perpetrators. The key is to try to be alert to both and aim to be good at conversation – work on the art of it; I’m pretty sure it makes it more fun for everyone.

Back in 1977 I fitted out my very first kitchen. I had a ridiculous amount of fun wandering through department stores and kitchen shops deciding what would be most useful and which items I might get at a later date. Even things as mundane as rubber spatulas, whisks and mixing bowls made me feel bouncy. It was at about this time that I was invited to my very first Tupperware party.

An impeccably groomed young(ish) woman introduced herself as Jenny, our sales consultant. She assured us all that there was absolutely no obligation to buy anything. Of course, if we did choose to buy a few items, this would add to the total sales for the evening and ensure that our hostess would receive a lovely gift as a reward for having us all around and for providing such a tasty afternoon tea… and she would be more than willing to sit with each of us in turn to advise us on our purchases…

Having delivered those little bombshells and neatly installing a small case of the guilts, Jenny got into the swing of things. First we had to endure a couple of mildly awkward icebreaker games. Somehow or other sharing the name of our first pets, where we went to school, our favourite colour or whether we could touch our right hand to our head at the same time as rubbing our belly  was supposed to enhance our chi, make us feel relaxed and help us get to know one another better. I’m not a fan of ice breakers in general. They tend to be activities or questions that the under-12’s might find amusing or interesting, but leave me stone cold and significantly less relaxed than I was to start with – and yet they seem to have become part and parcel of any number of meetings, gatherings and events, much to my dismay.

Jenny barrelled on through her script, eliciting uncomfortable giggles and random information from all and sundry for 10 minutes, then moved on to the main game. She started by giving us a bit of background about the product, emphasising that all items came with a lifetime guarantee. Several bright smiles later we finally got to the point where she showed us some of the latest and/or most popular catalogue items, i.e. what we were actually there for.

Since I was still mix 'n storin kitchen-equipping mode, this part turned out to be surprisingly interesting. The products looked useful and I could definitely imagine a range of the matching canisters in my pantry, storing things away tidily and in such a way that critters couldn’t stealthily infest them. I also rather fancied the idea of an item called the Mix ‘n Stor, which was essentially a large measuring jug that doubled as a mixing bowl. It had a rubber/silicon anti-slip ring on the bottom and a lid that doubled as a splashguard in the event that one chose to use a hand-held electric beater to mix things in it. Very handy.

At about this point we were given the shiny colour brochures – and the price list. I’ve never been much of a poker player and I doubt my flinch was very subtle. Jenny pounced immediately, smiling brightly and reassuring me that I could actually get some of the goodies for free – if I booked demonstration of my own and invited at least six friends along. No pressure, of course, but booking a demonstration would also add to the overall points for the evening and my friend would then get even greater rewards for hosting the current event…

Not a lot has changed in almost forty years. The products are still very attractive, the sales reps are still well turned out and discreetly pushy, the icebreaker games are just as awkward – and the price list still makes me flinch. These days, however, supermarkets, department stores and kitchen shops are all overflowing with a plethora of comparable products that one can purchase at far more affordable prices and without the ‘no pressure’ sales technique. Despite this, however, Tupperware parties are enjoying a renaissance. Just last week I ended up attending my first in over a decade. I was one of a dozen or more guests, all but three of whom were between 25 and 35 years old. The older contingent neither wanted nor needed any more plastic items, no matter how attractive. We’d simply come along as a gesture of solidarity (the host for the evening being the daughter of a mutual friend) and to catch up with one another.

The surprise of the night was the glee with which the younger women fell upon the products, cooing at them as though they were novel and exotic. They sipped their champagne, nibbled on Brie, crackers and fresh cherries and compared what they’d already bought and what they were planning on getting. They used their smart phones to share their calendars and to book demonstrations and trotted out their credit cards to confirm their significantly overpriced purchases. It was fascinating to watch the buying and demonstration-booking frenzy, even though it was largely incomprehensible. Surely their mothers and grandmothers all have kitchens and pantries bursting at the seams with similar products bought at similar events during the 70’s and 80’s, I thought, so what’s the attraction?

By the time I left I’d concluded that Tupperware is rather like flared jeans, mini skirts, short shorts, tie-dyed T-shirts, low cut pants, bright colours, maxi-dresses and oats porridge (a super food, you know…). They’re all hang overs from the 70’s and have all been (re)discovered by a generation that has claimed them as new, rather than retro, and who find them original and exciting. Everything old is new again. Again.

Sadly the Mix ’n Stor no longer seems to be a catalogue item – and I never did get one.

mobile-phone-police-surveillance-feature-largeRather a long time ago a chap called John Stuart Mill asserted that there are some areas where governments/rulers appear to consider it best to mislead the public. These, he said, include “…the political religion of the country, its political institutions, and the conduct and character of its rulers.” He made this point back in 1867 and it’s abundantly clear that the political machine hasn’t moved on a great deal since then. There’s no doubt that it’s become increasingly media savvy to keep pace with technology, but it appears no more inclined to truthfulness – or what is nowadays referred to as transparency. One wouldn’t want to encourage informed debate and rock the political boat, after all.

Then, as now, governments simply don’t seem to believe that they can’t trust the public to make the right decisions on issues – unless, of course, they’ve been provided with the right information on the subject – by the right people… aka the government or someone who, in effect, speaks for the government. The sticking point here is, of course, that when governments choose what opinions their citizens will hold, they are, in effect, silencing the population and quashing the core principles of democracy.

JSM adds that rulers (governments) often inflict punishment upon those who criticize or who censure the conduct of government, which brings me to a film I watched today. The War You Don’t See is an indictment, not only of governments, but also of reporters and media conglomerates who collude with governments in programmes of public misinformation. Whether they do so actively (knowingly) or unwittingly (passively) makes little difference to the outcome.

Perhaps we need a JSM today, someone to remind us that we have a choice. Someone who will call attention to the need for active engagement in the world around us with words like these: “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.

Instead of JSM, however, we have the Internet. We have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. We have WikiLeaks and Assange and Snowden. We have choice, a voice and the ability to share information locally and internationally. But for how long – particularly if we remain passive?

And so we come to what is being promoted by the Australian government as a necessary evil in a world stalked by threats of terrorism, namely data retention – and all that goes with it. Politicians at best loosely conversant with the Internet have been waving their hands and trotting out confusing and, quite simply, embarrassing poorly informed explanations on the issue all week. They’ve wriggled out of answering questions that look too closely at what is, without a doubt, an orchestrated breach of personal (individual) security.

Why is this information so essential to government agencies – and why are they out-sourcing the retention of the data to commercial entities (telecom companies)?  Radio National was asking these questions today too.

It looks overwhelmingly like a government trying desperately to reel in an unruly public – a public that is independently seeking (and gaining) information on a wide range of topics without that information being adequately mediated by the right people to ensure that the right opinions are formed… and the right people stay in government. The media is once again being utilised to manipulate and promote public fears, to link terrorism and data retention with ‘watch lists’ – using innuendo as an implicit threat to silence the tweets, discredit the whistle blowers, shut down the curious. The manipulation is overt, but the impact is insidious.

But I leave the last words to John Stuart Mill. “…an ignorant man … has at least a chance of being sometimes in the right. But he who adopts every opinion which rulers choose to dictate, is always in the wrong, when it is their interest that he should be so…”

So this whole hosting your own site seemed like an awesome idea… but didn’t take into account my very (!) limited programmery skills  and the high level of frustration that results in. Just logging in has proved a challenge! As for uploading images… well, suffice to say that it’s time for a nice cup of tea!

End of first post and first rant :P