Conversation: The Art

The question: What are the central characteristics of a genuine conversation in your opinion?

I want to draw your attention to a massive and brilliant study, but for most of us far too specialized to be a book to “blog” our way through. The book is Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation. Her book is a detailed analysis of 17th Century salons, directed mostly by women, designed not for professors and specialists but for a nobility that wanted to form a society where its values and interests could become the central focus. I contend that the term “conversation” can be understood by taking an interest in this movement. I see its descendants in high society England and major metropolises in the world (e.g., high society New York — think The New Yorker). One publisher comes to mind: Alfred A. Knopf.

The Age of Conversation, seen in the salons especially in France, found a group of people who had the following characteristics:

1. They were directed by women and showed an unusual degree of integration between the sexes.
2. They were concerned with the pleasure of conversation, of learning, of enjoying one another.
3. They were shaped by absolute equality between all participants.
4. They had an ideal: to “marry lightheartedness with depth, elegance with pleasure, and the search for truth with a tolerant respect for the opinions of others” (xiii).
5. They sealed themselves off from the power structures and politics of the day in order to form an ideal society.
6. They were shaped by a style: they carried on their lives with a notable style and a code of manners.
7. They secured an informal society that had some clear boundaries between themselves and others.
8. They were opposed from the left (Rousseau thought they were oppressive) and right (Pascal thought they were too worldly).
9. They privatized what was most important to life.

Now to the issue of “style”… Life was made in the salons of France into “the most elegant of games” (340) that was shaped by loving one’s partner and fellow salon members as they ought to be loved. Tolerance and mutual respect shaped the conversation completely; honoring the integrity and value of the other shaped the the conversation as well. These conversations became the educational force for those so involved.

Central to the task was aim of pleasing others and to do this they developed several strategies, and I shall try to use the French words with some brief translation:

Politesse: courtesy.
Esprit: mental, spiritual, and social sense and joy.
Galanterie: chivalry, galantry.
Complaisance: an obligation to the other, kindness, amiability.
Enjouement: cheerfulness.
Flatterie: without being overdone, one was to complement the other.
Raillerie: playful teasing of one another.

There are dangers here, like snobbishness, and they are obvious for anyone to see. But what happened was that the French salons created an environment where conversation occurred, not to beat the daylights out of someone else, not to denounce the other, but to enjoy the pleasure of discussing pressing concerns of a given group. They learned to converse in order to learn from one another and make one another more educated.

Conversation like this, however, has its problems. As Craveri sums them up, “their exquisite courtesy was a means of domination, and their intellectual malleability was a mask for sterility and sophism” (356). In fact, at times such conversations refused to ask the hard question. “As on the battlefield where French officers took their hats off to the enemy, or in life’s crucial moments when notaries drink to the health of their expiring clients, so, in theological discussion, politesse had the upper hand, and Morellet would turn to his adversary and address him as ‘Monsieur and dear atheist'” (359).

In other words, and I hope you like this swiped line from Cynthia Ozik, the danger of conversation in this sense is tete-a-tete gone flagrante delicto.”

The fundamental obstacles to conversation among are two-fold: most conversations are blocked either by a right vs. wrong obstacle or by an information-only obstacle.

Let us say that a person wants to converse about world religions, about the presence of “silent Christians” in the Islamic world, about the issues surrounding eschatology in the New Testament, about how to “do church” in a postmodern context, about preaching in today’s world, about homosexuality, about the church and the poor, about the gospel and social justice, about marriage, about rearing children… any topic that matters and any topic about which a person has concerns and wonders what is the best way to think about. Bring into the mix a person who is young or a person who really has serious and good questions about traditions … and you create the only kind of conversation that really can a conversation. Something important, a couple of people, and a desire to learn from one another. But, often mutual exploration is not what happens. Why?

The first obstacle is the right vs. wrong risk. Orthodoxy is right; anything else or less than orthodoxy is wrong. With that looming behind every conversation, when a person raises a question there is immediately a worry if what the person is asking is orthodox or not; whether or not by participating in such a conversation a person will be seen as harboring doubts about orthodoxy; and whether associating with such persons calls into question one’s reputation. Quickly, in many cases, the conversation stops being conversation and becomes instead a quick lesson on what tradition teaches the Bible says and that if one strays from that one is questioning the Bible and, there you have it, the slippery slope worry comes to the surface.

When conversation is shaped like this — and this is what I want to contend — there is no conversation. Instead, it becomes didactic. Which leads me to the second issue.

The second obstacle is that conversations, instead of becoming explorations of one another’s minds on a given topic as each reflects on how each makes theological decisions, become information-exchange sessions. Whoever knows the most becomes the teacher; whoever knows the least becomes the student. That’s all. It’s about information exchange. It becomes catechesis instead of conversation.But the “art” of conversation can’t be learned in such a context when everything is dominated by right vs. wrong or when it becomes whoever knows the most becomes the teacher. This isn’t conversation; this is lecture or information exchange.

I do not deny the value of information, nor do I deny the importance of orthodoxy. But can we have conversations sometimes?

What are the marks of a good conversation?

First, a good conversation (and therefore a good conversationalist) requires a safe environment. By this I mean space — somewhere to feel comfortable; and I mean at least two people with listening skills; and I mean the ability to disagree if necessary but not denounce, condemn or berate.

Illustration: most of us think this blog is safe; when someone joins us at the table and starts denouncing someone we feel uncomfortable. The reason we feel uncomfortable when someone denounces another is because we assumed we were in a genuine conversation in a safe environment. We believed we were in a conversation not sitting in a pew listening to a visiting pulpiteer.

I’ve been blogging now 8 years — began about this time 8 years ago — and sometimes I wonder how long I can keep doing this but it is the commenters — our virtual community — that keeps me plugging along. So thanks.

Many have turned to the blog world because they are having difficulties finding a safe place. I can’t tell you the number of pastors who have written me privately and said “I can’t say this on your blog, but I want to converse with you about the post today” or about something else.

Second, a good conversation requires a good topic or a good question. This one is clear: what is a good topic for some is not for others. It is also clear that some topics are better than others. Some topics are off-limits for one person and on-limits for another. There is a social skill involved here: some people perceive immediately what is on-limits or off-limits; others don’t.

Third, a good conversation operates on the basis of frequently-unexpressed but nearly always assumed, shared assumptions. I find this to be a regular hang-up on the blog. Many of us operate with a set of assumptions — and it would be fun to bring to expression what these really are — but we don’t talk about them. When someone violates them, we raise our eyebrows or start to wiggle our fingers and maybe even break into a sweat. Perhaps it begins with the viability of the question we ask.

Fourth, a good conversation requires the spirit of exploration and experimentation. If I ask my good friend, Greg Clark, who happens to be a philosopher and therefore practiced in the art of conversation and one who finds it delightful to turn over each stone somehow, a question, I expect him to tell me what he is thinking on the subject and he will probably explore his mind and he’ll ask me what I think and then I’ll ask him back and it goes on and on.

The major problem here is when someone gets too dogmatic. If in conversing we want to explore something together, we can’t have someone say “here’s the answer, buffo, and there’s no other possiblities.” The shared assumption is that we don’t get too dogmatic and that we explore and think together.

Fifth, a good conversation desires wisdom. I have very little use for a conversation that goes nowhere unless a few of us are gathered just to chat over beer or coffee or about a football game. No, a good conversation with a good topic or question leads to mutual exploration so each of us can learn and grow in wisdom. As a Christian, we want the conversation to lead us into the wisdom of the way of Jesus.

Sixth, a good conversation stays within the parameter of the topic. One of the routine challenges of conversation is wandering. We begin with a good question — Did Jesus do miracles by the power of the Spirit or in his own power? Can libertarian economics exist in a world like ours? — that begins on the right track but then someone begins to talk, and wander aloud to another topic (a previous event in life) and then we’re talking about that event, which leads to another topic and we realize we are no longer on topic. This element of conversation requires either a conversation partner who keeps us in line or, better

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  • Rob Grayson

    Scot, this is a brilliant overview of what makes for good, stimulating, constructive conversation. Thank you.

  • RJS


    This is an important post – and I think the reason this blog works as well as it does is because it fosters a (moderated) conversation. It isn’t moderated for agreement or disagreement, but for conversational tone.

    I hope it keeps going awhile longer – although it is a bit like teaching an additional seminar course or three. My 2 weekly posts alone feel like I’m teaching an additional online seminar course in addition to my “day job”. It is work to keep it going.

  • Diane

    I also agree that this is a good post. I arrived at this blog precisely because it was safe. I agree too that even for a poster, it’s work. I have to be intentional about dropping in and making a post–there’s almost always something more pressing to do. The blog has to be important enough to find the time to participate.

    Several factors, often noted, make a cyber conversation more problematic than a face-to-face conversation. Sometimes (usually) my attempts at humor fall flat, and attempts to drive the conversation by playing devil’s advocate can also be wildly misunderstood. One concern I have is the seeming dominance of male voices on this blog (I say seemingly, because who knows if “Bill” is really a male). It’s not only being male, but speaking in what I would call a male discourse that’s valued. Because of this, I have been spending more time in other venues. I believe this is a topic for exploration, but one would first have to see that it’s really there. I also can understand being wearied with the whole enterprise after a time. How to keep the conversations fresh and interesting is perhaps the biggest challenge. I tend to be a slower-paced person form the pre-multi-media era, but I also find the growing number of conversations in this “salon” hard to keep up with, and my personal preference would be for fewer subjects with longer shelf lives … but that’s me. 🙂

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, that is so true… it takes time to do a blog like this and I’m grateful for your contributions over the years.

  • Scot: These are excellent and very helpful points. Three quick thoughts: 1) Since I just came out of a sociology theory lecture, I’m drawn to how your six points shift the balance of power in classroom teaching and learning. It’s so much easier for all of us if I’m the expert who pronounces truth. 2) The points cut both ways. I’ve been reading a lot of “young disaffected evangelical” blogs lately. Mostly I like them. But I wonder how to temper language so that we don’t simply create a New Othodoxy. 3) Technology (even blogs) make it difficult to adhere to points three, four, and six. It’s far easier to blast a comment on Facebook or change my profile picture. If my blog was more about my assumptions or ponderings and less about my conclusions it would be far more beneficial.

  • jason malec

    Nice post, Scot. Longer than most of yours, but with good reason. Like others, I too, appreciate the tone of conversation you’ve created and maintained here over the years. That’s a very tough balance, yet one you’ve modeled well. I do hope that we, the Church, can learn from your example in practicing good conversation. Otherwise, we’ll be left conversing with ourselves…

  • scotmcknight


    At times I get frustrated on this blog because I’m not often giving my own view. Instead, I do my best to set up conversations and let the conversation flow… but over time I believe we need more and more opportunities to converse instead of just declaring or pronouncing or indoctrinating.

    I do not believe the model manifests what should happen in pulpits but it can help in what we do in classrooms or adult Bible studies.

    “Conversation” is an art that is unnatural for persons of faith.

  • RJS


    Nice point – conversation is not a model that is directly applicable to the pulpit, but it is an important model for the church.

    I was in conversation a couple years back with a pastor who expressed the opinion that Adult Sunday School was a dinosaur because we now know that a lecture format is not the best way to encourage learning. His response was to abolish SS and any formal adult class structure for a platform based solely on lay-led small groups.

    As a teacher I think this approach is a poor choice as well. A more useful approach for the church is a selection of intelligently designed and led discussion or seminar format classes – the art of productive conversation. Small groups are best used to meet a different set of needs (fellowship and accountability in particular).

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, totally agree on what SS classes could become.

  • If you take “church” in its original sense of intentional meeting or gathering, as in a town hall meeting or synagogue, then both the salon and this blog would be considered churches. In my view both function more like what Jesus had in mind than what most people have in mind with the concept of “church”. I have never yet been to a twelve-step meeting but I understand that they also fit the original concept very well. I think it helpful to step outside our inherited notions.

    Scot, I simply do not understand how one person can do this blog along with all else that you do. It seems like a full time job in itself to me. Hats off! If this discussion peters out, perhaps an offshoot would be to wonder why women seemed to head the successful salons. I would be interested in what the author had to say about this and perhaps Diane above would be as well.

  • John

    “Conversation is an art that is unnatural for persons of faith.”

    Just in case anyone missed it.

  • Barb

    wow–this is what I imagine heaven to be like. But my dream conversations take place around a campfire. I’m an elder for Adult Ed. and I teach Bible Studies. I never lecture–I was told yesterday at the end of a 15 week study of Ephesians that I was a good Bible teacher. I think it’s because I study (a lot) before class–then I throw out meaty questions–then I wait for the discussion to start. Oh yeah–and I have wonderful class members who would all agree on the marks of a good conversation that you list above. In other words I don’t “teach” at all, but I do lead those eager to learn to learn.

  • scotmcknight

    Barb, and Plato wasn’t a teacher because he only led his students to ponder questions? I think you are teaching!