The art of conversation

By Sarah Sands

'Did we turn the oven off?' trumps 'I love you' when it comes to meaningful communication.

Rather than regurgitating the day's events in lengthy conversations, long-term partnerships are more about 'a current of shared interests and memories, which do not need explaining,' writer Sarah Sands believes. Photo / Thinkstock
Rather than regurgitating the day's events in lengthy conversations, long-term partnerships are more about 'a current of shared interests and memories, which do not need explaining,' writer Sarah Sands believes. Photo / Thinkstock

In a piquant gag in the new movie The Artist, the neglected wife of a silent movie star begs him: "We need to talk." Her husband ignores her, demonstrating his modernity in marital relations, if not in movie technology.

A survey last week in Britain claimed that couples now talk to each other, on average, for less than 10 minutes a day. In cities with rich cultural and working lives, it appears couples barely open their mouths. The great art of conversation has shrivelled to this: "Have you got the charger?"

If you bother to set the table for supper, you will still need to lay a place for the laptop. Almost any discussion needs Google verification, from the results in Iowa to the actors you think you recognise in Sherlock. You could describe something funny that happened to you on the way to work, but why not call up instead the online clip of Usain Bolt playing Richard Branson?

The perfunctory nature of exchanges between loved ones is described as "conversation coma".

Are we boring each other to death? In some cases, communication is limited to text: "Can u bring down washing?" or "More milk".

The purpose of the survey is to show the desiccated nature of our relationships, but I would argue the opposite. The 10-minute rule does not capture the deep reserves of empathy in saying little.

Conversation is probing and competitive and restless. When did a conversation in Chekhov ever end well? Companiable silence is a healing end to a noisy day. As Edward Gibbon put it: "Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius."

My daughter does a smart impression of adult conversations in cars. After a long, dreamy silence, she will widen her eyes and say: "Did we turn the oven off?" or "We must get some 40-watt bulbs for that lamp" or "I really like John". To my daughter, the sentences appear random, but that's because she is not aware of the subterranean nature of a long-term partnership. It is a current of shared interests and memories, which do not need explaining.

To the young, the most affirmative thing you can say about a relationship is: "We sat up talking until 4am." For anyone who has been together for a while, this smacks of catastrophic aberration. Something would have to be really, really wrong to eschew the downy pillow and the turning off of the bedside lamp.

The science of communication has been the great achievement of this generation.

I can follow conversations all over the world. I monitor a babbling brook of opinion, personal revelation and stand-up comedy on Twitter.

If you have anything to add, this is the forum. Why would you want to replicate it in the sanctuary of the home? This should be a place of calm and consideration where it would sound downright weird to ask: "Was it right to call Ed Miliband ugly?" That is a matter for public discourse, not private solace.

My favourite thing is to read my book as my husband reads his. Occasionally I will call out a felicitous phrase, or he will respond to a plot development: "She's under the train," etc. How would it improve matters if we read out the entire work to each other?

In books, as in life, editing a stream of consciousness is a skill that can take years to master.

"Thinking out loud" is a hellish habit to impose on others. It is not that love can't be expressed; it's just that you don't have to.

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