Friday, September 12, 2014

The Joy of Conversation

A few months ago, a friend in my neighborhood book group inquired if any of us would like to meet occasionally to discuss other topics, perhaps issues of local interest, in a semi-facilitated manner. Hmmm, I'm aware of that concept, I thought, and I mentioned it to another friend who has facilitated conversation salons, and she loaned me a book on the subject. Published nearly 20 years ago by Utne Reader, "The Joy of Conversation: The Complete Guide to Salons" is a helpful resource for anyone seeking to convene a group for the purpose of thoughtful conversation.

The book begins with a history of salons, from ancient Greece through 18th-century France to 1990s Los Angeles, and ends with some thoughts on salons and activism. In between are mostly how-to chapters with advice on organization, publicity, time management and strategies for coping with difficult personalities. Some of this advice is dated (the publicity section can be entirely skipped as no group would rely on mailings and flyers in this era of e-mail and Facebook events invites), but most of the instructions are timeless and applicable to almost any conversational situation. Who couldn't use a guide on listening skills?

A chapter on e-salons is included, although at the time of publication, those were mostly listservs and usenet groups. Still, internet nastiness such as flamewars and cyberstalking had already become enough of an issue that the author suggested strategies for saving an online discussion group from those sorts of troubles. I wonder what she would advise now as the internet often seems to me a place where nearly all hope of civil, thoughtful, meaningful discourse is lost. What if we all logged out one night a week and met with our neighbors in a real living room instead? Maybe every block needs a Gertrude Stein.

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