Less Talk And A Little More Conversation

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Has civilization so turned for the worse, that people no longer know how to converse? Is getting together for civilized talk a prospect at which today modern folks balk? Here's one friend and reporter we know never cowers: Erin Moriarty of 48 Hours:

With cell phones, iPhones, Blackberries and computers, Americans today have no trouble making connections … it's making conversation that seems to be a problem.

To screenwriter Delia Ephron, life has always been about conversation.

"What do you think are the essentials of a good conversation?" CBS News' Erin Moriarty asked Ephron.

"Well, give and take, listening," Ephron said, "So, if you are blogging…you're e-mailing - you aren't listening, right? You don't have to listen. It's really just what's in your own head."

In "You've Got Mail," a movie Ephron co-wrote with her sister Nora, romance sparks the banter between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, both in person and on e-mail.

"I mean, conversation is about feelings and emotion," Ephron said, "That's what it should really be about. If we're not seeing it, that's the loss."

James Lipton makes conversation for a living, talking to famous actors on the television program "Inside the Actors Studio." He thinks the art of conversation is diminishing daily.

"In a good conversation," Lipton says, "what's happening is that two people are engaging. One is hearing the other. That sparks something. He or she replies. Then the other person who is listening just as well, responds. And then you've got a genuine conversation."

Lipton - like Ephron - has concerns about technology.

"Do you read your Internet mail?" Lipton asked Moriarty. "It's all abbreviations and the quickest possible way of transmitting the thought from the brain to the computer."

"Well, that's great for transmitting messages, Lipton said, "but that's not a conversation. It just isn't."

The truth is, Americans may be turning to technology to avoid real conversations, and that's nothing new. Lucille Ball faced a similar dilemma more than fifty years ago.

In the "I Love Lucy" episode, "Lucy Gets Ricky on the Radio," Lucy asked her friend Ethel, "Whatever happened to that game we used to play before television was invented? It was called conversation."

The two friends reminisce about how they used to sit around all evening and talk, and how in millions of homes around the country, other people were having the same kinds of conversations.

The punchline came when Ethel's husband Fred quipped, "Yeah, that's why television was invented!"

Moriarty asked author Stephen Miller how he would define a good conversation.

"A good conversation is one which is like a game," Miller told her. "Where there's a certain amount of playfulness, a certain amount of good humored disagreement."

Miller has written a book about conversation, "Conversation: A History of a Declining Art" (Yale University Press).

"I think a lot of people look at conversation in what I would call instrumental terms," Miller said. "They want something out of it: They want guidance, they want advice about how to deal with their teenage kids, how to deal with retirement, whatever. It's not about just the pleasure of conversation itself."

The inability to converse is largely an American problem, says Miller. The ancient Greeks in the time of Plato reveled in playful conversations. So did writers in Renaissance Italy who relished repartee. In 18th century French salons and English coffeehouses, banter was considered a sport ... but the sport didn't catch on across the Atlantic.

"The colonies were settled in New England by Puritans," Miller explained. "Basically, Puritans didn't think good humor was an important part of life."

And from Thoreau to Hemingway, much of the American literature that followed didn't do much to change that.

"I think you see in American literature, American popular culture, a sense of the strong silent type, the macho guy who goes out and kills the enemy. He builds a house in the wilderness. If you are a good conversationalist, you are probably somewhat effeminate. In Britain and in France, that's not the case at all.

"The John Wayne Image?" Moriarty asked.

"The John Wayne image," Miller agreed. "Or Humphrey Bogart. He doesn't say a lot. He's a hard-bitten, hard drinking detective."

"The exception is Cary Grant," Miller noted. "But Cary Grant is English, anyway!"

"I think once you're in love," Delia Ephron told Moriarty, "the only place you fall in love again is the movies."

Ephron - who also co-wrote "Sleepless in Seattle" - believes we learn a lot about how to converse from romantic banter on the silver screen.

"My favorite movie was 'The Long Hot Summer,'" she said, laughing. "I remember seeing it as a kid, and not leaving the theater. And seeing it right through the second time!

"What's the subtext of the conversation?" Ephron asked. "It's about connecting. It's about attraction. It's about romance. It's about all these things. And if you're not seeing that - it's not just rat-a-tat-tat. It's not about cleverness. It should be about feelings."

But now, Ephron says, few movies with great romantic dialogue are being made. Action films and male buddy movies - that's what sells today.

"Do you think we've lost something because there isn't the same kind of great dialogue between men and women in the film?" Moriarty asked.

"Well," Ephron answered, "I think we've lost something, because we lost the sense of language. The movie market is now so driven by the international …and that works against conversation, too. If you are going to sell a movie in Asia or something, you have to have a movie that is universal. Which means it's probably going to be about a thriller or more violent or broader in comedy. It's certainly not going to be about, you know, the juiciness of talk."

Which explains why these days, Delia Ephron spends her time writing books for young adult women.

But if dialogue is dying at the movies, there's plenty of talk on TV ... from political slugfests like "Hardball," to Oprah's afternoon tete-a-tetes, to late night chats shows with celebrities. But is that true conversation?

"Most of the people I see on talk shows now," Stephen Miller said, "it seems to me, just hold forth ... rather than are good conversationalists."

Which brings us back to James Lipton, who says great conversation can happen anywhere. It doesn't need a stage. It doesn't need even need much skill.

Referring to his show, "Inside the Actor's Studio," Moriarty asked Lipton if he sees his interviews as actual conversations, with give and take.

"Oh, absolutely, there's give and take, he told her. "Remember, there's no pre-interview. The way the guest and I have thought of it sometimes is, it's a circus tent. And on one side of the stage is a rope ladder; on the other side, another. I go up one; the guest goes up the other. And we meet up at the top, on a high wire, with no net, for four to five hours. That'll force you to listen and respond. Which is, after all, what a conversation is."

"If you had any advice for someone who was afraid of conversation, Moriarty asked Lipton, "who was afraid of meeting strangers, and put on the spot and having to converse - you do it for a living. What would you say to them?"

"Listen," Lipton said. "Once the conversation has begun, just listen. It will spark something in you."

"Listening's a big thing," Ephron agreed, "I always thought that, you know, the secret to an attractive man was whether he listened to you. And as you know, if a man's just talking about himself, who cares?"

It is certainly something to keep in mind at this time of the year - as the round of holiday parties begin. Talk may be cheap, but good conversation is priceless ... and a guarantee you'll be invited back.

"People enjoy a good conversationalist," Miller said. "Because they know that person will listen, they know that person has a good sense of humor. They'll seek them out and these people will have more fun in life."