The Art of Conversation

I really looked forward to reading this book. I run several businesses from home and have gone out of my way to set up groups for me to go out and talk face to face with, to maintain conversation in my life. While I greatly value email contact with my team members, and social networking for family and friends, I understand the value of meeting people eye to eye.

Unfortunately, the book seemed to keep making me feel defensive, or as if I disagreed (sometimes strongly) with the author. I tried to take a deep breath, to plow ahead and consider hers an opposing point of view. It only seemed to get worse. If this was a "conversation" we were having then I was at the point of glancing around for the hostess and deliberately moving on to someone else to talk with.

I put a lot of thought into why I had this reaction. I read a lot of books, and many of them are on business / networking topics. Why did this one rub against me the wrong way?

Ironically, many of the issues I had with The Art of Conversation are issues Catherine Blyth herself alerts you to avoid in your own conversations.

First, she appears to be writing very pointedly for a British audience. Now, I adore English books in general and read quite a number of them. However, for a book that is supposed to be relating to you in common terms and with easily understood metaphors, she goes over the top with the Britain-specific terms, personalities and situations that many other people simply will not get. She only references this problem once in her book, in a section where she goes into a topic in great depth and then adds something along the lines of "this won't apply to people in the US."

To go with her heavy over-use of British colloquialisms and name-dropping comes a general name-dropping fetish in general. She delights in talking about the various celebrities she has run into over the years, from Bono to Jeremy Irons to Robert de Niro. It's not just that she has hobnobbed with the rich and famous - but she adds snarky comments about the things they did which were inappropriate. I found it unprofessional and it bothered me. In the Art of Conversation, I wouldn't want to be talking with someone who so delights in pointing out the errors of others, because it means I would be fair game as soon as I was out of earshot too. That is hardly someone I would want to cultivate in my community.

Equally as egregious to me was her continual and vitriolic slamming of online communities as being meaningless. Apparently "we understand each other less" in modern times because of the internet. I disagree *strongly*. I have diaries of family members in the 1930s and before. Many people back then only talked with people in their one small town. There was little diversity, little understanding of foreign cultures by the common person. The incredible growth of understanding in even the past 50 years is spellbinding. For her to pick on Facebook and other online services as being damaging and wrong strikes me as unfounded. Yes, I'd love to talk with many of my friends in person - but they live in other states! In the past our friendship would have faded and vanished because of the distance. In modern times I talk with them daily, share my fears and dreams and we stay very up to date with each other. Our friendship is as strong as ever. I have friends I've made in many different countries who I talk with daily, but who I have never met personally. Catherine would claim they were "fake friends" because we hadn't met in person. I am very sure that the depth of a friendship is NOT defined by personal meetings. I am sure we can all cite examples of this without effort.

Her own book sections contradict itself. In one section she is strong in saying that conversation should be natural, spontaneous, and relaxed. In another section she says conversations have rituals in them which must be followed for a good talk. Then there are items which just seem *wrong*. She explains that children with ADD just have "bad listening" skills. Science shows 75% of ADD cases are genetic. In fact Wikipedia says "There is no compelling evidence that social factors alone can cause ADHD."

I definitely appreciate the research Catherine went through in writing this book. She has filled the book with numerous quotes from the Bible through Greek and Roman times, up through today. She does provide some tried-and-true suggestions that I have seen in my other books on the topic. A conversation should involve drawing the other person out, not talking away yourself. You should avoid moaning, boasting and providing too much personal information. Speak slowly and use silence to emphasize points. Tell short stories rather than long ones - people can always ask for more details. Think about synchronizing your speech gently with the person you're talking with (matching their speed, style) - that helps people get comfortable with you.

But those things being said, there were just too many jarring notes in here for me to read the book easily and enjoy it. She actively recommends lying, indicating that "white lies" and other types of lies are quite normal. She has an entire section on how to insult people. One of her "bad people to avoid" examples is the person who wants to advance your cause and offers to be helpful. This is bad ... why? You should look down on offers of help as being self-serving? Aren't there tons of books out there trying to encourage busy people (and busy women in particular) to learn how to *accept* help?

There are many other books on the topic of networking and conversation. I'm afraid I'd have to recommend one of those instead of this one. Then again if you're a British technology hater who enjoys snarky gossip, this book might be right up your alley! There is definitely an audience for every book. I'm just not the audience for this one, and I wouldn't pass this along to any of the members of my networking groups.

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