A modern, gray and quiet street, on the borders of Paris and its northern suburbs. On the bay windows of a gray concrete building, white letters announce: “Maison de la conversation”. Inside, a café lines up long wooden tables, a “listening room” bides its time, while a ballet of young people prepares the “great room” for the evening event. Here, we rely on conversation to create a connection. Located in the center of eight priority districts of the city where different cultures coexist, this third place of innovation and social experimentation aims to rehabilitate oral exchange on an ultralocal scale as a “tool for living with, doing together and emancipation”. “Conversation in French” for people who have recently arrived in France; “Embroidery in conversation” to support victims of sexual and gender-based violence; “In-depth conversation” between professionals concerned about their future, etc. For two years, the team has been increasing the number of proposals, “pretexts to enter into conversation for people who wish to exchange”, explains Grace, a communications student.
We need to talk
Houses, festivals, thematic day, night… different initiatives were born in response to the same intuition. “Conversation is a way to save the world. A little naive perhaps, but damn effective,” says Guillaume Villemot, creator of the Festival of Conversations. Why the plural? “Because today, by dominating conversational tools, we have more spaces at our fingertips to explore different forms,” he explains. “For millennia, physical presence between interlocutors was the prerequisite for any exchange. Then, in the 19th century, the invention of the telephone introduced distance. Closer to us, mobile telephony and the Internet have multiplied communication channels, some of which – not all – favor new forms of conversation (WhatsApp thread, SMS, etc.). Today, artificial intelligence and conversational assistants are reshuffling the cards, but will not exhaust the chance that governs our discussions. »
Breaking the ice to counter growing isolation motivates Bénédicte. “Before 2020, it was not uncommon for me to strike up a conversation after a cinema screening with other spectators and for us to continue discussing the film over a beer. Since Covid, it’s over,” notes this resident of Yvelines. At 67, still working, Bénédicte plans to create a club in her town when she retires. His association would offer meetings around a book or a theme chosen together, in a friendly setting. History of promoting a discussion that is “mobile, lively, which requires interactive listening”, his definition of conversation.
“Debates and chatter have been trying to pass themselves off as conversations for too long,” accuses Guillaume Villemot. While “debate carries within it the germ of discord and attempts to invalidate the words of others, while chatter fills the silence but remains empty”. Neither debate nor chatter, but so what? “There is conversation when I speak and when I listen. It goes well when I am heard, even if I am not necessarily understood,” analyzes Odile, 60 years old. “When I learned something,” adds Bénédicte; when we dared to share enthusiasm, frustrations, confidences without falling into too much intimacy. » She notes: “It happens that someone returns a long time after a conversation to something that struck them, even though the person they were talking to does not remember what they said. As the doctor, psychoanalyst and Jesuit Denis Vasse said: “It is when we forget our own fertility that we are fertile. ” »
The rain brightens the dialogue
The quality of an exchange? “It can be fleeting, like the quality of the encounter with Christ,” continues Odile. It doesn’t belong to us. I remember an incredible conversation in the checkout queue at Lidl, with a lady who was buying a bouquet. She had lost her twin and came every day to collect flowers to place them on her grave. »
At these precious moments, you need a gateway. It is not for lack of imagination that the weather is the favorite topic of conversation for 86% of French people (Ifop, 2018). Talking about the rain and the good weather gives the opportunity to adjust to each other and serves a high-precision mechanism: “A conversation often presents itself as an exercise in free association practiced in twos or more. Its end point is rarely predictable, and it can take many unexpected detours,” describe Roxane Bertrand, CNRS research linguist, and Professor Nicolas Nguyen, both at the University of Aix-Marseille. “But behind this apparent freedom (…) hides a well-established system of construction rules, which everyone respects without ever having learned it explicitly. » Recent studies thus focus on the cooperation of interlocutors to follow a common line, the alternation and orchestration of speaking turns and all the signs of attention of the listener, “mh”, head nods and other movements eyebrow, with an underestimated role.
However, we are not born gifted in the art of conversation, we become it. At another time, Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach, a history columnist, confessed that she would have liked to run a salon in the style of Mademoiselle de Scudéry or Ninon de Lenclos. A taste that was passed on to him by his parents. His father, a senior civil servant, and his wife organized many dinners. “At our house, there was a big staircase,” she remembers. Some evenings my father would say to us: “This is going to be an interesting evening, you sit on the steps and listen. ” » We imagine the four children not missing a beat of what the adults said.
Taste the salt of conversation
In the absence of family or school transmission, initiation can take other routes. Odile found in the CLC (community of Christian life) meetings a mechanism according to her expectations: “Every three weeks, we practice rewriting our lives. During the first turn, everyone says what they have been through since the previous time. In the second, we react one by one to what has been said, we challenge the other. This leads to very deep exchanges. With people we don’t know right away, we’ll get to the essentials. And this is being prepared. » The presence of a leader or facilitator is crucial.
“Distributing the word is like distributing bread,” Odile compares again. It is a mark of hospitality. At a dinner, it is up to the host to ensure that everyone can express themselves, to share the floor, to ensure that no one is left out. And if we want to stay connected, there are certain topics that should not be discussed, not at this time. » This rule comes into its own again at Christmas. If the conversation does not a priori exclude disagreement, we avoid inviting it to the family celebration table. And if, then, there is a shortage of topics for discussion, why not discuss what makes a conversation interesting?
Play the conversation game
Inspired by an Anglo-Saxon approach, here are two sets of cards to start a conversation with family, couples or friends in a fun way: