My good friend Myrna Weiss, who led First Marketing Capital Group and is now doing interesting work at NYU, sent me an article from the October 2006 issue of Vogue entitled "Can we Talk?"
The article's author, William Norwich, says "In this era of cell-yell, 'over-sharing,' and pandemic gossip, cultured conversation is a lost art." First off, I like the term cell-yell. Too true! Norwich should know a thing or two about sophisticated social exchange, since he used to be the Style and Entertaining Editor of the New York Times. He decries the fact that too many people ask awkward questions that invade people's personal space, don't have a sense of decorum about which topics are appropriate for social exchange, and spend too much time gossiping rather than conversing.
He tells the story about a woman in a position to know the details behind a scandal that was front page news on the tabloids and was asked at a dinner party what she thought of the situation. Rather than fan the gossip, she loved replying, "I think it is none of my business."
There aren't enough people like her. Why are people so bent on prying into affairs that are personal or should for some other reason be off-limits? Could it be that so many people, at least Americans, are so willing to tell all, even details no one wants to hear, in order to get their five minues of celebrity? Have they set the tone for the rest of us to assume that everyone wants to bare the most intimate details of our lives to perfect strangers?
This translates interestingly to office situations, where people ask questions that are simply too personal of those who work with them and much time is spent sifting through the tea leaves of co-workers love relationships. The art of conversation, as Norwich calls it, may not be dead, but it appears to be comatose in many circles.
I remember a senior officer of a bank who told one of my sons to take his Liberal Arts college education seriously and not worry about acquiring business schools while an undergraduate. "Most important thing of all," he said, "is for you to be interesting and have something to talk about. So learn all you can about how to be curious about things that matter. That way, you'll be able to carry on a conversation with anyone since you'll ask good questions." I don't think he had in mind the kind of questions Norwich is talking about.