"Do we have to talk about football?" Theresa asked as we sat around the table at her place sipping our after-dinner coffees.
"I haven't talked about football all evening', protested her husband Jeremy. "I've deliberately avoided the subject."
"I know you have", said Theresa cuttingly. "I've watched you trying to avoid the subject for the best part of three hours."
"And what exactly is that supposed to mean?" said Jeremy.
Although most of my attention was concentrated upon unwrapping a second chocolate mint, I could readily have explained the entire meaning behind Theresa's remark.
This was not the first time she'd complained about the quality of our conversation. There was the occasion last December when we'd all gone out for a pre-Christmas meal to the local Italian.
We were still tucking into our minestrones and tricolore salads and chatting amiably about the problems and perils of having tedious relations over for Christmas, when she suddenly announced that she was tired of such a trivial topic and wanted to have a serious conversation. Jeremy was first to respond. "What about, darling' he asked.
"I don't know what about, darling" she hissed back. "I only know that it doesn't happen when we four all get together. All we do is take turns telling anecdotes and making jokes."
Jeremy inclined his head. "Darling" he said sweetly, "you're absolutely right. We never ever have a properly serious conversation. So let's get down to one immediately. Who'd like to start us off? Who'd like to be the first to say something serious? Any volunteers?"
"Stop it, Jeremy" said Theresa, "you're doing exactly what I was complaining about. Trying to be funny."
"No, I'm not" said Jeremy leaning. "I'm merely illustrating the absurdity of your request. You can't decide in advance to have a serious conversation. Any more than you can decide in advance to fall in love. You have to allow it to emerge."
"But with us it never ever emerges" said Theresa, "as soon as anyone touches on anything significant someone makes a joke and off we go into another round of monologues. We don't talk to each other. We talk at each other. We don't even entertain the possibility that a good conversation might generate some insights, might bring us closer together. We're not even good listeners."
"Frankly" said Jeremy, snapping a grissini, "I've never believed in the concept of a good listener. There are no good listeners. There are only people waiting with varying degrees of impatience for their turn to speak. It's like the man with sixpence in his ear who goes into a shop and the man behind the counter says. "Excuse me, but do you know you have a sixpence in your ear?" And the man says "I'm sorry. I can't hear you I've got sixpence in my ear."
"Black pepper" said the waiter. "You're right on cue" I said. Co-operation and conversation. That's one topic addressed in a new book by sociologist Richard Sennett called Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation.
I'm talking with Richard and philosopher John Gray about that book in this week's programme on our podcast and repeated on Sunday.
Also in this profgramme: Why do the Brits drink so much?
Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed
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