The power of good conversation over a great meal

As children growing up in the ’80s, my sister and I were allowed one glass of pop and our own bowl of chips every Friday night. Plunked down in front of the TV to watch Family Ties, Cheers, and Who’s the Boss?, I would inevitably shovel in all my chips and gulp down my pop before the end of the first show, while my sister mindfully ate chip by chip and drank sip by sip, ensuring hers would last the entire evening.

There was no negotiation or debate for refills. Talking was kept to a minimum, our eyes transfixed by the screen, ears perked for the next joke. Absolutely no monkey business was allowed during the commercials while Dad read the daily paper.

Some thirty-five years later, I recount that story to provide context to the importance of shared experiences and great conversation. When family members and friends “spend time together,” it can be devoid of conversation, connection, debate, and laughter. These learned behaviours can shape the ways in which we interact with one another later in life.

While opinions may vary on what constitutes a “good conversation” these days, I am struck by what is too often confused for conversation. Sending a long string of text messages, punctuated by emojis, with no body language or vocal inflection to convey emotion. Tapping out an email in the privacy of the washroom stall at work. Dictating a voice memo while driving. In today’s fast-paced world, Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime are convenient tools that we have all come to rely on for keeping in touch. Even so, there is not—and will never be—a substitute for face-to-face, in-person conversation.

When we meet someone face to face, good conversation requires us to be fully present—mentally, emotionally, and physically. The liberties we take in other contexts just don’t (and can’t) apply. Most of our in-person communication and conversation is actually nonverbal, brimming with subtle cues and nuances that can be neither conveyed nor received when we’re not physically close to one another.

Assessing social cues; interpreting reactions; conversing with several people at once; timing our jokes just right; expressing our opinions with sensitivity, clarity, humour, and passion—these elements of communication are learned throughout our lives as we build a bank of personal experiences from which to draw. As the world and our audience change, so in turn will our conversation, thus requiring ever more learning and practice.

In our home, guests are greeted by a small sign hanging in the vestibule. It reads:

This house Is a mobile phone–free environment.
Please silence your phone, leave in the bowl on the table behind you, and enjoy the company of the wonderful people here.
• Social media can wait.
• Your contacts can leave a message.
Thank you.

Consider trying this as an experiment when you finally get around to having that dinner party you’ve been anticipating for so long. I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the way your evening unfolds. It might well end up being even more fun than a barrel of monkeys.