The Art of Talking

There are three talks left in the Art of Learning series. After last week’s talk about listening, tomorrow I’ll be talking about talking. Next week, I’ll try to say something about how to enjoy a university education, and then I’ll wrap things up with a talk about how to retain and relearn the knowledge that you acquire at school. In all cases, I’m trying to identify various things that you should try to become “good at”, not just to help you get through school, but to help you in the course of your life. An “academic” setting is an excellent place to develop some core intellectual skills, and speaking well, like I say, is definitely one of them.

In order to know something at university, you have to make up your mind about it, and you have to be able to write it down. But you should also be able to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. You must be able to “discourse” effectively on subjects that you claim to be knowledgeable about. This means that you must know who the relevantly “knowledgeable” people are and at university this is fortunately not much of a mystery. They are your classmates, your peers. You should be able to talk to your fellow students about the things you are learning. You should be “conversant” about your chosen subject.

I normally emphasize three components of this rhetorical competence, each of which begins with a fact that you must face.

First, there are better and worse questions. We’ve all at some point been told that “there is no such thing as a stupid question”; but we have all also at some point realized that this is not exactly true. In some teaching situations it’s important to get everyone to feel comfortable asking questions if they don’t understand something. But, even in those situations, we sometimes find ourselves asking questions that we would not have asked if we had been paying better attention during the lecture. More commonly, a question will stem from obvious ignorance about the assigned reading for a class. If we had only read what we had been told to read, we wouldn’t have been in doubt about the answer.

In conversation with our peers, we can sharpen our sense of the good question. We can try to notice which questions lead to fruitful discussion and which questions only stimulate our peers to provide condescending explanations of basic facts. But a word of caution: calling a question stupid is not a demonstration of rhetorical skill. A skilled conversationalist is someone who is able to guide a conversation away from a fruitless line of inquiry and onto more fertile ground. Ideally, they will be able to do this without the person who asked the (stupid) questions realizing that this is what is going on. Having an eye for good and bad questions does not license you to be rude. You want to engage in the conversation, not end it!

Second, a community of knowledgeable peers has a shared sense of humor. “There are no contradictions,” write the Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “only degrees of humor.” Leonard Cohen said that his teacher’s laugh “put cartilage between the bony facts”. Wittgenstein said that the depth of philosophy is like the depth of a grammatical joke. I could go on. Some of the funniest jokes are the ones that play on what we know (and don’t know) about the world. Our knowledge establishes a boundary to the boundary to the absurd, and humor arises just beyond that boundary, where just exactly stop making sense. As you learn, you develop your “wit”.

It’s impossible to learn something about subject without affecting your sense of humor. As you learn, you are able to get certain jokes, while others become less funny. Some jokes you only recognize as jokes within the framework of a shared body of knowledge, while some knowledge makes it impossible to laugh along with an otherwise popular joke. While you are not going to be telling jokes all the time in your studies, do become aware of the humor that is available to you in conversation. It’s part of your skill set. Sometimes a good scholarly style emerges from providing the set up and holding back the punchline. The result is not laughter but the feeling that we’re in good company. Merriment, if you will.

Third, some things are not okay to say. This doesn’t always mean you shouldn’t say them, only that you have to say them very carefully. I’ve been talking about this for several years and I always say that, while we should not be afraid to talk about controversial subjects, we should understand that the danger is quite real. Just as a stupid question can expose our ignorance, so a a bigoted remark can expose our biases and, in the worst cases, reveal our unsuitability to be members of our chosen discipline and profession. Many years ago, Thomas Kuhn pointed out that a scientific discipline isn’t constituted only by abstractions, models, and examples, but also by a shared set of values. You will probably have to adopt some new values and abandon some old ones in order to fit comfortably into your field; that’s a perfectly normal part of getting an education in any case. But you will also have to learn how to talk about the values that put you at odds with your peers. These difficult conversations are worth having and worth being good at having.

Here, too, remember that skill is revealed not just whether you recognize the discursive facts but in how you deal with them. Just like you shouldn’t call a question stupid, or laugh inappropriately at a bad joke, you should not simply cause offense with an improper remark. Nor should you simply take offense when someone says a bad word. You should learn how to deploy provocations constructively and how to respond to them effectively. You should have a sense of how to bring you and your interlocutor through the twists and turns of a difficult subject, which are familiar to you precisely because you are knowledgeable. Learning how to do this takes a little courage and a little patience. Be brave and, please, be kind.

This is not an exhaustive account of the art of talking of course. Tomorrow I will spend some time on each of them, and I hope there’ll be many questions that will give me a chance to explore the nuances of conversation. Also, we may come up with other competences that are important in conversations. I’ve already suggested that listening is one such underlying competence, and so are the complementary abilities to think and write. In an academic setting, being “knowledgeable” is a package deal. There’s a lot to master. But you also have plenty of time. Be bold in your experiments. And, yes, be careful!

2 thoughts on “The Art of Talking

  1. Thomas:

    Different people have this skill in different contexts. In an academic setting, I can listen to a talk in just about any subject (as long as it is not too technical) and come up with good questions. But in a social setting, I find it hard to start up a conversation with strangers. I guess there must be people who have the opposite strengths and weaknesses.

    1. I think this is an important observation. You are a knowledge-able person so you find it easy to talk to people who know things and are talking about what they know.

      Conversations in social situations aren’t always about what people know. They can also be about what they want or hope or desire or dream or fear or hate or are trying desperately to forget.

      That requires a different set of skills.

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