The art of conversation: The gardens of Damascus

Conversation’s not what it used to be.

Today’s methods have pluses and minuses. Probably more pluses if you’re younger or technologically savvy, and likely more minuses if you’re older or electronically challenged.

If you hark back to the day when most communication with friends and relatives occurred in person or on the phone, that’s probably where your comfort center lies.

For those of us in that category, few things are more satisfying than a stimulating two-way or multi-way visit in language and slang that all the parties know and appreciate. That mode includes tone of voice, expression, timing, raised eyebrows, cocked head and all the other idiosyncrasies that enrich interpersonal communication.

But if you came of age (or are doing that now) after the birth of cell phones and the Internet, you are probably more comfortable with “soloing” — either texting or delivering blind messages without knowing the immediate reaction of your deliveree to what you’ve communicated.

If that’s what you’re used to, you’re cool with it.

But if you prefer the former method, then electronic talk really doesn’t do it for you.

I know, since we have kids and grandkids, that cell phone texting is probably preferable to cell phone talking for most young people.

I know it, but I don’t understand it.

You can’t interrupt someone’s text with a guffaw, a chuckle, a gasp, or some other signal of your reaction, at least not until the sender ends his or her message. To us talker-types, texting seems sterile and stilted. If you’re using a cell phone, why not talk with it rather than text with it, when the circumstances permit talking?

Texting does have the advantage of allowing the texter to form complete sentences and complete thoughts without interruption before delivering the message; that’s true. The opportunity is there.

But sadly, in a way, just the opposite usually happens.

Text messages usually comprise short cuts and abbreviations instead of precision. What the French call “le mot juste” — the perfect word — rarely shows up in texting.

Not that spoken conversation is much better — but it has a way of promoting instant comprehension and grades of appreciation. A slight nod or a vigorous headshake from the other person is much more revealing than LOL or OMG can be.

There’s no good reason, of course, why texting need be any different than letter-writing, which today is fast becoming a lost art.

How often do you receive an actual letter in the mail, especially one that’s handwritten? I treasure those few that I receive, and I admit sadly that I send one rarely. A well-written letter is a true work of art, and a thoughtful, articulate text message can be the same. But that kind of message usually takes time, and few of us today have the patience or the desire for that.

Texting is probably most akin to what sending a telegram used to be like — a way to convey an abbreviated message, short and to the point, with no nuances. If that’s your thing, it becomes second nature. But if it’s not, you sense something’s missing when you receive a text.

n a scene in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” the story of British officer T. E. Lawrence’s leadership of Arab fighters against the Turks in World War I, Lawrence is a guest in the desert tent of Prince Faisal.

Faisal, musing on the goals of the various parties to the war, stands up and slowly strides over to a shadowy corner of the tent. His eyes burn brightly as he says slowly, “As for me, I long for the gardens of Damascus.”

That’s how I sometimes feel about good conversation.

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