How to have a conversation

It’s a dying art, struck down by text, email and messaging. So can we be taught how to talk to each other?

John McDermott

Perhaps it was the opium talking, but Thomas de Quincey once wrote that an evening in the company of Samuel Coleridge was “like some great river”. The poet “swept at once into a continuous strain of dissertation, certainly the most novel, the most finely illustrated, and traversing the most spacious fields of thought, by transitions the most just and logical, that it was possible to conceive”.

Most of us have hopefully felt the unmoored elation of staying up all night talking with a friend or a lover. But Coleridge was that rare thing, a conversationalist: eloquent, witty, with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of cultural knowledge. Nor was he the only one back then who could claim his company was a performance art. David Hume once engaged in so much raillery at a dinner party he left Jean-Jacques Rousseau clinging to a table leg.

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