The claim that conversation is a dying art has become itself a familiar conversational topic. As with many laments of cultural decline, the charge is most often levied by the old against the young. Our loquacious forebears, we are told, spent their time chattering away in smoke-filled drawing rooms, coming up with such ideas as human rights, constitutional government, and modern art. Today’s young people, in this telling, have ushered in the tyranny of the tongue-tied. Stupefied by our phones, we shirk face-to-face contact. When we are roused to banter, we find ourselves regurgitating political talking points or desperately summarizing a half-remembered television show. A burgeoning industry of card games featuring conversational prompts (“Can love really cure all?”) tries to supply training wheels for basic skills of human interaction. Maybe ChatGPT will end our misery by drafting our conversations for us. Its remarks could hardly be more hackneyed than what we say ourselves.
But is discourse really in the doldrums? Complaints about the decline of conversation have a long history, extending far beyond present-day hand-wringing about the numbing influence of technology or the banal comforts of sectarian echo chambers. And attacks on empty talk, conventionally directed at women or the young, can also strike at the powerful. The satirist Jonathan Swift, for example, took aim at the vapidity of upper-class banter in his 1738 treatise A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation. Having observed how often, in company, “the Conversation falls and drops to nothing, like a Fire without Supply of Fuel,” Swift’s speaker presents a collection of eloquent “Questions, Answers, Repartees, Replies, and Rejoinders” in the hope of remedying this linguistic deterioration. Conversation cards, likewise, are nothing new. Eighteenth-century dinner-party hosts would enliven the discourse in the parlor with cards featuring aphorisms such as “Wedding a Woman for her Beauty, is like eating a Bird for its Singing,” among other surefire discussion starters. The great age of conversation was also a great age of anxiety about conversation.