Public Dialogue

Recently, I sat next to a well-dressed woman in her early thirties on a plane flight from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.. (Many articles could start out with this same paragraph.)

Initially, I was anxious to read some papers for a meeting the next day, as well as some magazines that I had greedily squirreled away to read on this trip. The woman and I had little in common; she was a wealthy member of Peninsula society, and I am an urban intellectual with egalitarian and simple-living leanings. We conversed for the entire five-hour flight.

As I think about it today, I realize that this woman was a great American artist. I have come to realize that jazz is not the only indigenous American art&emdash;public conversation is also one. By public conversation I mean conversation with a stranger.

We take for granted the ease with which we Americans can speak to nearly anyone who sits down next to us on a bench, bus, or on a ski lift, or who stands next to us in line at a movie, grocery store, or while waiting for a late train. But this is an American art. The grounding for our special art isn't found anywhere else in the world. We usually find out how uniquely American this is if we try to talk to a person from another country. Teachers also notice it when they try to engage foreign students in classroom discussions. Free-wheeling casual conversation is difficult for non-Americans, and they must learn the rudiments of this art, if they are willing. Americans have a solid grounding in this skill.

An American women in the 1980's, who spoke perfect Japanese, found that she was encouraged to become a geisha in Kyoto, because she was so comfortable engaging in casual conversation with strangers, which is what geisha do. The Japanese, who chose this profession, have to undergo extensive training to learn how to be good at casual conversation with strangers.

Foreign visitors, even those from Europe and England, often comment on this Americanism, which I argue is the ground work for our highest art. Like other art forms, it requires a great deal of training and experience. Children and young people are rarely good conversationalists, because they lack training and experience. Experience in talking with ouher people provides content for conversation, conversational skills themselves are slowly acquired often with guidance from mentors. To move from average skills, which are widespread in American to great artist requires extra effort.

As in other art forms, some people have a natural talent for the art of public conversation. They can make nearly anyone light up with interest and can be engrossing for many hours. Other people have no talent at all. I have known a few great conversationalists on the artistic level of Cézanne and Matisse, and many lesser artists as well. Then there are all the people with whom conversation is limited, stilted, and boring, something we always know within a few seconds of beginning to speak with them.

This art form grows out of our cultural roots. It comes from the intellectual soil of our founding fathers, who disdained and prohibited titles and nobility in our Constitution. It can be seen in our worship of a rough-hewn gangly Midwesterner whose public prose is memorized by all of us (I need not say his name&emdash;only two of his humble words: "Four score . . . "). Anti-elitism, anti-classism, and belief in the common man are fundamental influences on our proclivity toward public conversation. Our sacred belief in equality makes this kind of exchange possible. Our tradition of universal education and elective public office (we have over 600,000 elected officials) elevates public conversation to a level of importance. The rock-hard foundation of trial by jury (juries are a form of institutionalized public dialogue that takes place in private) grows out of our deeply embedded and usually unnoticed commitment to public conversation.

The dialogue that we take for granted between strangers is occasionally a great art that is uniquely American and largely unappreciated. Like jazz, it is temporal, improvisational, and highly personal.

Michael Phillips, 1996 (revised 2000)


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