Narcissus CaravaggioWhen I speak or consult on the subject of conversation, I express my dismay over the current state of conversation, caught between the poles of extreme rudeness, where there are only intersecting angry monologues, and extreme pleasantness, where superficial discussion anaesthetizes any potential for sincere connection. These poles revolve around us as we pursue the narcissistic endeavor that is our self.

Fueling this self-centered engagement with life is the self-help industry, girded by economic growth and shifting cultural norms. The exhortation is: Be authentic! As Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster put it in their essay, The Gospel According to ‘Me,’ we have replaced the idea of an external deity, “… with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness.”

At the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others. Critchley and Webster

I have remarked before on the dangers of such introspective attitudes, especially referencing Roman Krznaric’s appeal for us to be Outrospective. Critchley and Webster observe that this pursuit of some personal psychological outcome is to reject our external reality and any collaborative, community endeavor. I would suggest that it is a rejection of belonging, which can only result in isolation and unhappiness.

The antidote is true, inquisitive, unpredictable, courageous conversation.

[PS – Delve into your Art of Conversation at one of my summer workshop experiences. Register here.]