You Could Use A Good Talk, Conversation Expert Says

The New Year holiday means we have, at last, reached the end of cocktail party season. That means the end, too, of long conversations with almost-strangers. Some people may breathe a sigh of relief at that, but not Daniel Menaker. Guest host Ari Shapiro plies his skills with Menaker, author of A Good Talk, about the art and science of conversation.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The New Year means we have, at last, reached the end of cocktail party season. That means the end, too, of long conversations with almost-strangers. Some people may breathe a sigh of relief at that, but not Daniel Menaker. He's a conversation connoisseur and author of a new book called "A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation." He joins us from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the show.

Mr. DANIEL MENAKER (Author, "A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation"): Thank you. Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Okay. Well, it's evident from the book that you derive great pleasure from talking with people you barely know. What do you love about it?

Mr. MENAKER: Well, I have an insatiable curiosity, I have had since I was a kid, and like to find out the uniqueness that is like fingerprints that each person has. I think the second thing is that we find out more about ourselves in talking to other people, it's a kind of discovery, mutual discovery, and I think it knits a social fabric that is in some danger of being rent.

SHAPIRO: Rent.

Mr. MENAKER: Torn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: I want to get back to this. But first you say we learn more about ourselves from talking to others. Explain that.

Mr. MENAKER: Robert Burns says," Oh, what a gift, the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us."

SHAPIRO: Huh.

Mr. MENAKER: And it seems to me that in conversation, if we're attentive, we can find out what sort of impression and what sort of impact we're having on others and learn about ourselves. And if we find ourselves out of bounds or having insulted someone then perhaps we can change that.

SHAPIRO: You know, you also talk about how a good conversation includes some of elements of sort of risky confessional, of revealing things intentionally about yourself. How so?

Mr. MENAKER: Well, I have the sort of amateur sociological theories about the structures of conversations, especially with people we don't know well or don't know at all. We sit down and talk for the first time and there seem to be various stages, and one of them is indeed something I called risk.

Usually, it happens when you've made a connection with someone on non-risky matters and you feel confident and comfortable with them. Then you may take a risk of admitting a weakness or discussing a hope, or a wish, or an ambition to tell something about yourself and you're sort of testing the waters. It doesn't have to be sensational or tabloid. It doesn't have to be a confession of a crime.

SHAPIRO: You talk in the book about how your love for country music is something that you hesitate to admit to people. But when you do it sometimes opens doors in a way that you wouldn't expect.

Mr. MENAKER: That's true. And country music is a particularly interesting and sometimes sensitive subject for sort of Northeasterners who aren't supposed to know or like it. We have no country music station in New York City.

SHAPIRO: I was about to interrupt you there, to ask - you write about interruptions. What role do they serve in a conversation?

Mr. MENAKER: Well, I'm scared to answer for fear that you'll...

SHAPIRO: That I'll interrupt you?

Mr. MENAKER: Well, that you'll test me to see how I handle them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENAKER: I think they are for the most part, you know, you're told as a child not to interrupt other people. I think that interruptions out of enthusiasm and out of intense listening to the other person...

SHAPIRO: I know exactly what you mean.

Mr. MENAKER: There, you see, that might've been scripted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MENAKER: You might even have planned that. But...

SHAPIRO: I didn't. I swear. It just came out.

Mr. MENAKER: But it does demonstrate - I mean there - you know, children interrupt and kids get enthusiastic, and one of the ways they show their enthusiasm is to interrupt. And I think, in the book, I say how many times have you said or heard a younger or any person say, wait a minute, wait a minute. I just got to say this one thing.

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MENAKER: And I think it's sort of an adrenaline. I mean, I think it actually is a kind of enhancement of the conversation as long as the other person isn't saying something of gravity that needs to be completed.

SHAPIRO: You write that good conversation actually gives us a biological high. Explain what's going on there?

Mr. MENAKER: Well, as I was writing this book, it - and doing actual genuine research about it, I began to find a body of literature about the physiological effects of social interactions and particularly conversation. And it turns out that when you feel, sort of, high after having a good talk with somebody, there's a hormonal reason for it. It releases oxytocin, which is a neurotransmitter and which is also released during nursing, orgasm and other pleasant human physical experiences. So, it's odd that this is not a physical experience, but still has the same physiological affect.

SHAPIRO: Well, if there is a physiological pay off to good conversation that suggests that there is some evolutionary reason for it, right?

Mr. MENAKER: Sure.

SHAPIRO: What's that reason?

Mr. MENAKER: Our conversation, especially gossip, is an outgrowth of primate grooming behavior.

SHAPIRO: So we are talking instead of removing flees from each other, that what you're saying?

Mr. MENAKER: More or less, more or less. And the reason for - and you know, you've seen champs groom each other, then they sort of inquisitively parting the fur and making believe they are finding something. The fact is they are having a kind of conversation. They are making a clan or group connection in which certain hierarchies are established, a certain kind of trust is established. And when it doesn't have a particular agenda, human conversation is indeed a kind of ritualized activity and therefore it has an evolutionary and physiological affect. And that - this is a way of performing the same tasks, making a social connection with others and creating a group.

SHAPIRO: We've sort of talked around, but I would like to kind of hit head on. How do you define conversation?

Mr. MENAKER: For my purposes, a conversation is a verbal exchange between two people in which a connection is made that has nothing to do with an agenda, a goal or a purpose, but it's simply a social confirmation of our humanity, of a certain degree of insecurity. A good conversation consists of a mutual acknowledgement of uncertainty.

SHAPIRO: Daniel Menaker is the author of �A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation.� Thanks so much.

Mr. MENAKER: Thank you.

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