Brain Pickings

Barbara Walters on the Art of Conversation, How to Talk to Bores, and What Truman Capote Teaches Us About Being Interesting

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“Things being what they are in the world today, we are more and more driven to depend on one another’s sympathy and friendship in order to survive…”

What The Paris Review has done for the art of the interview in print, Barbara Walters has done for it on television. By the time she was forty, Walters was seen by more people than any other woman on TV and had grown famous for her ability not only to land interviews with seemingly unapproachable guests — presidents and politicians, actors and writers, tycoons and entrepreneurs — but also to crack open even the hardest shells and coax into the open the tender humanity within. In the late 1960s, Walters gathered her strategies, tricks, and learnings on the art of conversation in How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library) — a perceptive and witty guide to just what the cover promises, extending her experience of interviewing greats to everyday life and outlining “how to talk easily with anyone, anywhere [and] how to get beyond the superficial forgettable small talk that most people use as a substitute for communication.”

Walters, never one to shy away from strong opinions, begins by debunking a common myth about the key to great conversation:

I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener. Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more. It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely. Maybe the person doing the talking enjoys himself at the time, but I suspect he’ll have uncomfortable afterthoughts about it; certainly his audience has had a cheerless time.

A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception. Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens.

Walters goes on to outline a number of conversation strategies for different situations. In one of the most compelling chapters, titled “How to Talk to Difficult People,” she offers an essential caveat and advocates for listening as an act of sorely needed compassion, especially in those conversations where our impulse may be to flee. Her warm wisdom rings all the more urgent, if more difficult to enact, in our age of online conversation characterized by a propensity for knee-jerk reaction over thoughtful response. Walters writes:

I’m not in favor of escape as a unilateral policy. There are painful, tedious people in abundance and some of them must be suffered kindly, maybe even until they run down and have nothing more to say. Things being what they are in the world today, we are more and more driven to depend on one another’s sympathy and friendship in order to survive emotionally…

Furthermore, warm, sustaining relationships become especially important during those periods when we are our least lovable. People bursting with good will and abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal. People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can’t get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, listen, listen. You’re paying your membership dues in the human race.

Among the several conversation partner archetypes particularly deserving of such compassion is “the bore.” Walters offers some humbling perspective:

A bore has feelings. Very often he will interrupt something boring he is saying to comment that he is a bore. His wife comes over and inquires sweetly, “Is he boring you?”

If he is, maybe it’s your fault. “Being interested makes one interesting,” Dr. Erich Fromm observed, to which I would add that you generally get out of a conversation what you put into it.

Truman Capote by Irving Penn, 1965

She points to one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century to illustrate this intricate art, a practical embodiment of Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer.” Walters writes:

Truman Capote has a natural gift that makes him a great guest at a dinner party: he is always interested in whomever he’s talking to. For one thing, he really looks at the person he is with. Most of us see outlines of one another, but Truman is noting skin texture, voice tone, details of clothing.

[...]

One of the reasons that Truman is always interested in people is that he won’t allow himself to be bored. He told me that when he meets a truly crashing bore he asks himself, “Why am I so bored? What is it about this person that is making me yawn?” He ponders, “What should this person do that he hasn’t done? What does he lack that might intrigue me?”

He catalogues thoughtfully the bore’s face, his hair style, his mannerisms, his speech patterns. He tries to imagine how the bore feels about himself, what kind of a wife he might have, what he likes and dislikes. To get the answers, he starts to ask some of these questions aloud. In short, Truman gets so absorbed in finding out why he is bored that he is no longer bored at all.

What a wonderful manifestation of why the capacity for boredom is essential to a full life.

Complement How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, which is both pragmatic and delightful in its entirety, with this timeless 1866 guide to the art of conversation and John Freeman on what makes a great interview.

Thanks, Ruth Ann

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