Talking to an intelligent lawyer the other day she lamented the almost complete disappearance of what she called ‘real conversation’. I know what she means. To me it seems that The currency of Conversation has given way to the currency of “me-ism” – a pathological attention to our own navels and interests, with little thought for that of our neighbour. I must add that I know many people who help the poor and disadvantaged. It is wonderful to see what that help does to make life better for an invalid or an old age pensioner. Nevertheless, we are a selfish society.
We are still a society that compartmentalises our lives into work, ’doing-good-time’ and play. However much you score in the ‘doing-good-time’ it will never compensate for poor standards of neighbourliness in the work and play times. If you want to do good, do it now, to whoever is near to you. I recently listened to a profound lecture on the results of a poll that revealed that Singaporeans want a more gracious society. When it was over, I noticed that highly-educated Singaporeans attending rushed for the door, pushed and shoved, even when there were old or disabled people. Graciousness begins by doing gracious things now, not in the future.
Part of graciousness is communication with our neighbour, within our family and with those we don’t know at all but who step into our lives in one way or another. Being able to talk easily about the affairs of the world, events in our own part of it, or about any of the many issues that face mankind is a skill we all need to have. Social exchange of this sort lubricates relationships and enables us to learn about the way others think and live. It may be gossip but a good gossip, without malice, is guaranteed to provide some updates and is therefore a learning.
We are encouraged to be committed to lifelong learning. That does not mean revisiting school or university all the time. It means keeping up to date. Our best sources of information are those we meet. If they aren’t we are meeting the wrong people. One of the influences parents can have on their children but which they seldom use is instilling the need to make good friends. That doesn’t mean only influential people who can help with careers and contacts. It means what it says, ‘good’ people, those who can think sensibly, act decently and be a model for a fulfilled life.
A good measure of a friend is the answer to the question ‘can I sustain a lively and healthy conversation with this person and come out of it better educated?’ This is the main component Eliza and I have for judging the suitability of someone to come to a dinner party. In fact, if they qualify, they get a “DPM”* alongside their entry in the address spreadsheet. By this means we aim to keep the currency of conversation high and the challenge of thinking sharpened.
One of the companies I worked for in my early years had a chairman who insisted that lunches for clients should include an element of what he called “good talk”. Initially, I thought it wasteful of time that could be used to sell and confirm a client. I soon learnt to realise that those who joined in the good talkl not only enjoyed it but stayed with the company longer and brought others to it.
At the heart of good talk and graciousness is creativity. Wit and challenge demand imaginative thought if they are to sustain friendship and enjoyment of life.
Those who think a gracious society is one that is gracious towards them are wrong.
It is one towards which they are themselves always gracious.