Where Talking Is a World-Class Sport
'Few are agreeable in conversation," wrote Francois de la Rochefoucauld, the 17th-century French author, "because each thinks more of what he intends to say than of what others are saying." Today, one may say that someone is a remarkable teacher, a caring father, or an accurate dart player. But a good conversationalist? Not likely.
Unless, that is, one happens to be French. The people of France are generally considered to be the world's best conversationalists largely because of their monarchical tradition, in which the court gathered all the brightest minds of the realm. In the famous 18th-century salons, nobles and artists came together for the sole purpose of talking. "Conversation was considered one aspect of civility," says author Philippe Meyer, a raconteur in the best French tradition.
French civility forbids asking how much money one makes. One's private life is just that, although talks about sex can be earthy as long as they aren't personal. Best of all, the French are not interested in those boring subjects that characterize so much American chatter-the weather, your new car, your vacation. Instead, conversation is sprinkled with the knowledge of the ages-sayings from wise farmers, quotes from poets. "Expressing oneself well is socially enhancing in France," says Peter Gonzalez, a Paris attorney.
The language itself helps. French has a dazzling variety of verb forms, allowing for both razor-edged precision and maddening vagueness. And the French keep their distance by discriminating between the tu and vous forms of address. Theirs is a complex, if unwritten, code that indicates the nature of the relationships and the social status of participants.
The French educational system, as well as strong cultural values, keeps the art of conversation alive despite cellphones and other intrusions of modern life. It is still common for French people to spend hours exchanging views with an uncanny combination of wit, audacity, and subtlety. Schools still teach debating skills, and every high school student must pass a written philosophy exam to get a degree.
"The French are better at [conversation] because they value it more," says Stephen Miller, author of Conversation, A History of a Declining Art. "They cultivate a certain playfulness that you need for conversation, which requires some risk. You have to disagree with people."
But conversation, like any other art, has its rules. Rule 1: A conversation is an end in itself, with no purpose. Rule 2: Rhapsodies of brilliance are to be avoided at all costs for fear of disengaging one of the participants, who may feel excluded or humiliated. Finally, disagreement is permitted and even encouraged. "But it has to be good-natured," Miller says. "Otherwise it kills conversation." Those subtleties again.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.