THE art of conversation, as practiced by our not-so-distant ancestors, has more or less died out; but by any standards it is a useful accomplishment, seeing that things have been so arranged in the world that there is really no means of contacting the mind of another human being unless one talks to it. Lovers, of course, read delightful messages in each other's eyes, as do elderly married people (though these are more likely to take the form of silently affirming, yes, I did remember to lock the back door, or, no, I didn't). But for the ordinary, run-of-the-mill person sitting on a sofa with another person, the use of words is imperative if they are to get to know each other.
However, there are so many mechanical distractions these days it is quite possible to entertain and be entertained without saying much more than hello or goodbye. It is very restful for hosts to plant their guests in front of the telly and leave them there while they go and wash up the saucepans. Restful, but not very inspiring. One can be introduced to an interesting-looking man who has written provocative books, or to a woman who has lived among the lamas in Tibet for 20 years, but, because Patrick is so eager to show off his new compact disc recording of Verdi's Requiem, one never hears them speak.
So used have we become to passing the time of day rather than conversing with people, when a situation arises which demands a flow of verbiage we not only find it difficult to muster our resources, but also, having done so, we feel amazingly drained afterward. As though we had climbed the Matterhorn without oxygen. All the same, after a bit of rest, you have to admit that these strenuous linguistics have been stimulating.
The actual exchange of ideas, the hard work in trying to remember what you have forgotten about baroque architecture, the skill with which you have disguised your ignorance of computer language, the way you have cleverly drawn out the inarticulate youth or steered Valerie away from spouting recipes, has left you glowing at your prowess.
Good conversation, like every other accomplishment, assuredly needs practice, and nowadays this is hard to come by. We have the heated argument, we have the man who keeps the table in fits with his funny stories, we have the specialist holding forth on his subject: but this is not conversation. The parry and thrust, the subtle turning of a phrase, the timing, and above all the intelligent give and take of really good conversation need a handful of bright people playing a game of verbal tennis: with not too many service aces either! As entertainment it surpasses television. ``Dallas'' cannot compete.
Conversation is an art, and although all of us could, if we tried, give to our lazy talking so much more polish, it seems we prefer to let our tongues lie fallow and our thoughts go unexpressed. Since we are full of such amazing ideas, it would surely be kind to share them with our friends? But oh my, the effort! Turn on the telly and let somebody else do the work.