Reclaiming Words: Conversation

Conversation (n.): oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas; an informal discussion of an issue by representatives of governments, institutions, or groups.

In a world that wants to divide us into good and evil, that insists people take a stand on things they know little about, where silence may offend or equal cowardice, and where exchanges become about winning an argument, how do we express our common humanity? Could we perhaps abandon debate, and instead, step into conversation?

We often hear that conversation is food for the soul. Yet what often passes for conversation is about being right, about convincing our conversation partner, winning, about one upmanship. But a conversation suggests an opening with, together; from its Latin roots, it means turning together.

Poet David Whyte says the great thing about the word is that it can’t be made into jargon and that it includes all spectrum of exchange, including with the natural world. “A conversation,” he says “is the meeting between what you think is you and what you think is not you.”

The most tedious thing he can know about a new person, he says, is what their inherited beliefs are. “What I’m really interested in is whether they’re up for a proper conversation … Do they have a conversational identity? Do they have an invitational identity? And those are the people we actually naturally and unconsciously – and consciously – love in the world.”

Origin and etymology of conversation

mid-14c., "place where one lives or dwells," also "general course of actions or habits, manner of conducting oneself in the world," both senses now obsolete; from Old French conversacion "behavior, life, way of life, monastic life," and directly from Latin conversationem (nominative conversatio) "frequent use, frequent abode in a place, intercourse, conversation," noun of action from past-participle stem of conversari "to live, dwell, live with, keep company with," passive voice of conversare "to turn about, turn about with," from assimilated form of com "with, together" (see con-) + versare, frequentative of vertere "to turn." Sense of "informal interchange of thoughts and sentiments by spoken words" is from 1570s. Used as a synonym for "sexual intercourse" from at least late 14c., hence criminal conversation, a legal term for adultery from late 18c. Conversation-piece is from 1712 as "painting representing a group of figures arranged as if in conversation;" 1784 as "subject for conversation, something to talk about."

[Sources: Merriam Webster, Sympoetic, podcast with David Whyte, “Crazy Good Turns,” Etymonline]

See also: The (Lost) Art of Conversation

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The Damage of Binary Thinking

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