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09 January 2018


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Fully concur and have often had a very similar feeling, and still do


Thank you yet once more Mr Sale for this thought-provoking piece. I face this more frequently than I would wish. I attribute this to these factors. I am old (68), my "education" (63 years in one type classroom situation or another, and my style, the legacy of a heavy dose of academic philosophy. I speak slowly in both English and Greek (my second language learned in my 30s).

Aside from my conversational quirks, I attribute this to two factors. The first was mentioned in the 80s regarding the computer term ROM as it was applied to humans for whom one could not get any information or idea into their thought process. The second I have attributed to Emerson and his thought in regard to "provocation" in the sense of "provocation to think" not aggression, although I admit I have poked a few wasps' nests in my days.


Please keep up the provocation and attempts at conversation.


Richard, I feel your pain.

It could be, though, that you have a rather high bar for conversationalists.

This post reminds me of a story about a Tibetan lama resident in the US who was asked who he would like included in a dinner party. He said "Someone with a sense of humor". Like who? "Well, someone like Khyentse Rinpoche". Sadly, this criterion was not met.

Carrying on in the Tibetan theme, an excellent book about conversation is the just published The Lost Art of Good Conversation by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. It has some excellent tips for situations such as the one you described.


A good laugh, very true.


Thanks for that, Richard.

Isn’t it odd that the truth of the proverb...


ends up in people becoming more polished, or polite? Able to sustain a conversation neither as a nodding donkey nor as overbearing windbag but with contributions where appropriate. And often, in presence of great conversationalists, silence is the way to contribute to the flow.

Martin Oline

Thank you Richard. Your topic helps me to realize why I love my one-day-a-week job, working in a used book store (I'm retired). I feel fortunate that the occasional opportunity comes my way to learn something new or be enlightened by someone else's life experiences or general knowledge. Good conversations can make life worthwhile, perhaps because the work I did during my career was seldom stimulating or refreshing.

Le Renard Subtil

I don't believe the problem lies totally in a lack of intellect. I think many folks, while they may have stimulating thoughts on a range of substantive issues, they cannot get past ingrained social anxieties or personality traits in order to have a meaningful conversation with others.

Also, conversation is a skill to be learned for many people and if one hasn't been taught or has not honed these skills to a certain degree, holiday chat can become a dead end. Assuming the other guy is dim is a mistake.

Patrick Armstrong

Well, that's a bummer.

Patrick Armstrong

All you missed was the feeling of dread that someone was going to mention politics.

Ishmael Zechariah

Richard Sale,

re: "A good conversation is a chance to share knowledge of life, of predicaments, crises, and interesting books and events. It stimulates, it doesn’t deaden. It welcomes and broadens, it doesn’t narrow. We old timers have had a lot happen to us, and its fun to share stories and episodes with others who have also led a rich life."

An apt description of the conversations on SST.
Thank you.
Ishmael Zechariah


I have found that trying to converse with people who have never left this country is part of the problem. They are disbelieving of anything not part of the official narrative as seen in the news, and cannot set aside their preconceived notions based on the same.

I tried to relate a story from a Malaysia trip, tossing in as a detail that one eats with their fingers in most places away from direct western influence. This quite literally caused several people to shake their heads and withdraw. After, my wife told me that a few wives said that I was 'certainly colorful', but no silverware in this day and age was just 'a bit much to believe'. Her opinion is that if it isn't something that has been shown on television, then it does not exist or is implausible to many people. Appalling to say the least...

It is also verboten to discuss most anything related to Christianity or Islam, and it appears to me this is because Christianity and Islam are actually considered to BE a religion, rather than a group of religious beliefs.

The dearth of knowledge in history, literature, science and other cultures makes little of common interest for me in many venues. I do not watch professional sports, as I had enough, playing in high school and college. It seems that is the sole common point available for many men. Politics is also verboten, as it immediately devolves into the old red/blue divide, regardless of their voting in virtual lockstep - one quickly discovers that most people have no idea how their elected vote to begin with.

For me, I go to these parties, but no longer do I remain if there is no mutually rewarding conversation available. If the wife wants to stay, then Uber for me if it is simply dull and repetitive or empty in the conversation department.

Oilfield get-togethers seem to be the most rewarding, as the people are traveled or expats, often ex-military as well. I have also had issue with the younger generation lacking the ability to converse; instead they fling verbal thought-stoppers and blandish slogans and talking points, with no room for any variance whatsoever.

Perhaps part of the problem is that entire parts of the country or particular groups have become so inward looking that they live in an echo chamber? Or that people cannot have a dissenting opinion without others taking offense? Most certainly, a large part of it is that people seem to think that someone should "win" the conversation here in America.

Whatever the cause, I agree that both decent conversation and civil discussion are becoming very difficult to find in many places.

Jim Buck

An age-old 'plaint:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them--
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunk prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy which says that "G"
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul -- here Clarence comes!
Read more at http://www.monologuearchive.com/s/shakespeare_046.html#qk90E2ctig08IQWP.99

Peter AU

I rarely go out to 'social functions'. Conversation is as you describe. Mind numbing.
Since MH17, I have only been interested in world affairs.
Went to the Fink desert race a few years with a mate that raced there. He busted himself one year, fractured vertebra, broken ribs and stuff. Was going to fly back later. Met another wounded who only had a few broken ribs and punctured lung. Wasn't allowed to fly with the lung, so I did an ambulance run to run him home, not far from where I am. Not much to talk about at the start, but then we got onto the stuff that is tossed around here at SST and a few other blogs and we talked constantly for the rest of the 27 hr trip.
I am far from being an academic, but it is rare I run onto someone that takes an interest in something other than TV, the small world around them, or their neighbors - Gossip.

A. Pols

Doncha love the tangential interjections while trying to converse?
"the husband would put up his hand, demurring"
Good on him! So many times kibitzers spoil a good exchange.



I have found that if the others in a social group are sufficiently ignorant of the world, conversation is impossible for the reasons you mention, and so have come to avoid people generally. pl

richard sale

I am not a snob and am not in the least smug. II spend my days reading authors or thinkers who are more intelligent than I ever hope to be.That makes you modest not smug.

I try to furher knowledge in my dealings. I have too many shortcomings to feel self-satisfied.

Are you happy with the way you are?



There is that joke:

"What do you call someone who speaks two languages?"


I presume everyone here knows the punchline.


Thank you! A literary response. I'm sitting here with my 1,000 plus library, mostly of literature since I am an English major with an MA from an excellent school. I started a PhD. program but quit when I was made to feel out of date because all they wanted was for me to pick an ideology--feminism, Marxism, post modern deconstruction, etc., from which I would judge what we would be reading. There was no patience for seeing a piece of literature from the perspective of the author's time or personal history. There was no sympathy for comparing it to literature from previous or later periods to see in it a string of ideas coming down through time.

I have been out of the country only to attend a wedding in Istanbul and then to do what I had always wanted to do: travel to Greece and stand on the Acropolis, walk around Delphi, and go through the lion gate at Mycenae.

From the perspective of a person such as I am, with extreme nearsightedness and now suffering from the very rare condition of myopic retinal degeneration, I don't find actual travel as something I like--especially having to go through modern airports. Travel in the mind through reading has always taken me to many places and times so many other people have no idea about.

For me to find someone in a modern social gathering who wants to converse at all about anything but mundane problems of traffic, heating costs, finding good day care, etc., is something for which have long ago given up hopw.

I do find that attending Bible studies at my church of mostly older people does provide stimulating conversation.

But I have lost hope for anyone younger than my age. They do not read and do not seem interested in anything but acquiring "stuff" and going on expensive vacations at expensive resorts where they are unlikely really to interact with the local population.

Babak Makkinejad

Is it ignorance of the world or simply that they are not interested in ideas , cultures, etc.?

Like, when you come to work, and people throw away the entire news paper, save the Sports page.

Babak Makkinejad

Richard Sale:

I think we can agree, on empirical grounds, that most people are not interested in learning.

It is what it is.

In regards to "chit-chat", you might find it interesting that in the religion of Zoroaster, what you described is a sin. The only religion that designates it so.


Your description of the daughter going on and on reminds me of an smart phone addicted niece of mine. And many other especially young people. I wonder whether smart phone addiction makes you a bore.


Fortunately for me, I am so alienated from most humans that I have no need to attend any social function, so am spared most idiotic conversations and the massive ignorance of most people.

My only conversations these days is with the black dude across the hall and they consist primarily of our running joke that we "don't want to hear about it" whatever the other says. That joke has been running for a couple years now.

This is also why I dropped out of Twitter after 50 thousand posts - too many morons with no intellectual integrity. The latter quality is absent from almost everyone these days and it makes holding any discussion virtually impossible.


@ DianaLC -

From where I sit, the number of young people reading something other than headlines, tweets and comic books has become minimal. They are focused on their smartphones, and their view of the world is at least partially through that tiny screen. For many, the tiny screen has replaced much of what passes for a social life. If virtual reality takes hold, it will not surprise me if these same technophiles forego travel for swimming in a virtual world.

I don't know where that will lead them, but they have placed themselves in a world where their reality can be freely manipulated by a very few others - which I view as horrendous.

There are still many that avoid or shake off the smartphone sickness - and while rare in my circles, they are a breath of fresh air. Fortunately, 3 out of my four offspring are in this latter category. The other cannot find her way to the next city without the phone leading her aurally.

A Pols

I don't know the punchline to that one.
But I do know the punchline to "What do you call someone who speaks one language?"
An American...


Thank you Richard for a pleasant essay.

I wonder if you are not describing the Sovietization of the US psyche... wherein the safest opinion to express is repeat the conventional wisdom or stick with platitudes. Free speech is not what it once was in our great republic, congress is once again for the sale and bidding of the highest bidder, there is socialism for the wealthy and austerity for the poor.

Alternatively, it is the Borg-ization of our culture. There was an interesting commentary on the Orville on the pre-occupation of the next generation with "likes" on facebook - I suspect it will further narrow the approved expressable socially acceptable thought.

If I find myself at similar gatherings, I tend to start up a conversation on the latest medical or science discoveries, as I find almost everyone remains interested in how not to die sooner, no matter how intellectually shallow their curiosity may be.

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