Shaun JohnstonBritish, now living in Hudson Valley NYEmail address
INTRODUCTION: Language, some evidence suggests, originated no more than 50,000 years ago. An impulse to talk, and to make art, may be part of our nature, but the forms they take such as the languages we speak and the arts we practice are part of culture. We make them up. I believe conversation is part of that, it’s something humans had to make up. Someone had to come up with the words we use for it, how we do it, and what we expect from itI call these--the words we use for conversing with, the skills we build for it, and the applications we find for it--the technology of conversation. The products are neatly expressed by the word “discourse”--a particular form of words, employing particular skills or rules, to accomplish a specific goal. Psychoanalysis is a discourse designed for use by two people, mediation is a discourse designed for three people, debating is a discourse designed for four, each discourse being structured to achieve a specific goal. Committees may formally announce a switch from a brainstorming form of discourse to use of Roberts Rules of Order. I may be particularly aware of conversation consisting of different discourses. When I came to the USA I found conversation being carried on according to the rules of a discourse I wasn’t used to. The British structure conversation around the sharing of opinions about topics, Americans structure conversation around taking turns telling stories. On the strength of that insight I spent five years researching for a book on the history of conversation. I didn’t complete that book but I have continued to regard conversation as a technology we can apply to come up with new forms of discourse.CONVERSATION TODAY: We ‘ve become good at using conversation technology to solve problems: “For English, press or say 1, for Spanish press or say 2.” We invent new tools for the efficient transfer of data, such as Facebook. Schoolchildren are taught good business communication skills. New skills are taught to replace those appropriate for older forms of discourse. So long as we’ve no longer the needs served by those old forms of discourse, that shouldn’t matter.I think it does matter. I believe the commodity of ultimate value to us is each other, as whatever kinds of creatures we have evolved to be, and we realize that value most intensely through conversation. But what kind of conversation? Are we better off trying to revive those older forms of discourse? Or should we invent new ones?TWO NEW TOOLS OF CONVERSATION: I launched a group to devise new forms of discourse that would help us come up with and learn the skills needed for tapping into the value in each other, but it never took off. Instead I am trying to put together a set of tools we could use to know each other better. Here’s a utility for beginning a conversation: exchange keywords to identify common interest; you say a word that has some interest for you, the other person responds with a word with a meaning that relates to yours, but shifted towards their interests. Through this exchange you rapidly converge on a common interest. But, what then? A major challenges is how to manifest one’s own “magnificence,” being engaging without being boring. Another is active listening, to engage with the magnificence in others beyond the walls we tend to shield ourselves with, at the same not being offensive or intrusive. What protocols do we need to keep within those boundaries? The other tool I developed is a discourse in the form of a game designed to probe disagreement.