Further Thoughts on the Lost Art of Conversation

In my last post, and in my post on narcissistic behavior, I was complaining about conversations that too often involve other people dumping their problems, or new acquaintances who want only to talk about themselves.  I had an experience earlier this week that helped me appreciate a different kind of social interaction.  Nothing compares with a truly intimate and reciprocal exchange between close friends, but here on Christmas Eve, I want to write about some very satisfying interactions I’ve had with strangers.

For the first time, we’re here in Colorado for the holidays; in our local town, there’s a big sledding hill, and earlier this week, we took our new sleds for an inaugural run.  There were other families on the hill, people we’d never met before; I was struck with how easily we fell into conversation.  We talked about the merits of the different sleds we all owned and laughed as the children went over bumps and tumbled onto the snow.  One family offered to let us try their Flexible Flyer, an aged piece of equipment the father had owned since he was a little boy.  Other than this last personal bit of information, nobody talked about themselves or trotted out a favorite story; nobody asked us any questions.  It was a completely satisfying social experience and, in its way, intimate.

It made me think about the conversations we often have with other hikers, met by chance on the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The “camaraderie of the trail,” I call it.

“Did you see that moose on the meadow?”

“What’s the trail like up ahead?”

“Keep your eyes open for a patch of glacier lilies off to the right, about a quarter mile from here.”

Occasionally, you will meet the slightly annoying hiker who says that the trail doesn’t compare to what he saw in Alaska, or slips in a reference to his trip to Tibet, but by and large, these are completely satisfying experiences to me — short, three to five minutes, focused on our shared impressions of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Everyone is in a good mood, doing something they love to do, and eager to share that experience with other people. Like my encounter with my fellow sledders, it feels oddly intimate.

Connecting to people in the context of an activity everyone cares can be a way to have more meaningful conversation.  Not all conversations need to be personally intimate, where you get to know one another better — that is still my favorite kind of social interaction.  But within the context of a shared experience, it’s possible to feel more connected to and intimate with strangers than we might with an old friend, listening to her complain about her latest boyfriend.

Finding Your Own Way:

Outside of work, many of us have too few interactions of the kind I’m describing.  If you’re dissatisfied with the social contact you’re having, maybe it’s time to look for something different.  There’s a lot to be said for hobbies, not the kind you pursue alone but ones that bring you into contact with people who share your interests.   I feel I have a deeper understanding now of what draws people to join a chorus or sports league; beyond the love of sport and music, it’s the opportunity to engage with other people, men and women who may never become close friends but with whom you can engage in meaningful conversation about a shared passion.

During the holidays when families get together, familiar patterns can stir up old resentments and rivalries.  Maybe a way to avoid falling back into our familiar roles or zoning out in front of the television set is to plan an activity.  Last Thanksgiving, a bunch of us went out for an intimate game of disc golf (not just the guys) and talked about nothing of substance.  Everyone had a great time and we felt closer afterwards.  Can you think of an activity you could share with your siblings or other relatives, something all or many of you might enjoy?

Merry Christmas, everyone.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I do think that meaningful exchanges about a hobby are a great way of connecting. My family has a few things that we enjoy together and it is fun to talk about and experience together. While I was never passionate about sports, I traveled a lot for Softball in my youth and enjoyed the time with peers. Even without words, there is an intimacy of doing things such as throwing a ball back and forth.

    As far as sharing too much with strangers on a personal level, that can be uncomfortable. I have a degree in Communication but I probably even violate this rule sometimes. I do think that the beauty of the inner level of friends is the level of intimacy that you would not want to trust to a stranger. I like that we form bonds rather than just have random exchanges with anybody about anything. However, I can find that even with close friends that there are some things that are not good to discuss. I don’t want too know too many private things that should between a husband and wife, for instance. Sometimes a conversation way above the surface even with a good friend is just what you both need. Or maybe to talk about food or the weather.

  2. I so agree with everything you say. I have so many times participated in meaningless conversations and sometimes you just “click” with someone and you find yourself talking about the meaning of life or the universe or some other interesting topic. Most people however just want to boast or talk about the weather. I once spoke to someone on the bus who explained that she was mistified as to why hardly anyone ever sat beside her on the bus. We got into a great conversation and I was able to explain why I thought this might be. She didn’t take humbage at what I said and was really interested in my opinion. We never saw each other again but she is a lady that I won’t forget.

  3. Genious givings all the way around. I myself am a culprit of taking charge of converation. When you don’t get out much because of work and obligations you will tend to spew at the mouth. Your finally out there, ready and willing to speak. People who come from large families are subject to being the individual who needs to be heard. I am from a family of 6 children, and it’s tough stuff . We are all close, we are all well read and well informed and that in itself will help in conversation. I am fortunate to have my Dad still with me at 77 and he will look away when I get too much, when he feel’s like I am not listenening to real conversation, and I am focusing on myself. He is not taking away from me, he is showing me that I am not in tune with real conversation, and not listening well. Thank God for great Dad’s

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