The lost art of conversation

With the proliferation and exponential growth of the technology of communications that we are witnessing today, virtually everyone could have access to limitless information which is so easily available. However, the tremendous choices dished out by current mass media of print, radio, television, online internet news, social media, etc present challenges of their own.

What is clear is that it is so noisy out there that there is hardly any real conversation going on. It’s more like an information explosion from different sources competing for attention and validation from the readers and listeners.

Some are broad, some more focus. Some are factual and some are speculative, insinuating and even intentionally misleading.

Reflecting on this fact, I recall fondly the olden days of the radio when the only form of interfacing was with the voice that comes out of the radio. Growing up then, and before the advent of the TV or idiot box, I noticed that my father was, for lack of a better word, a radio ‘addict’.

Yes, he was what people nowadays call a radio fan or enthusiast. In the whole village, he was the most passionate about the radio. His radio was always by his side.

Long into the night, one could hear the tell-tale crackling sounds of the radio after most have retired to their sleeping quarters in the longhouse.

Needless to say, and as I later learnt, he was the most informed in our community of the news and events happening outside the community. He even followed the news of the world, understood about events and happenings in countries he heard of but never visited.

He knew the names of main world leaders at that time.

Of course, those names that came up in the news that he heard on the radio. And he would share what he heard or learnt with those willing to listen.

Even though an uneducated and illiterate man, he knew more than most around him. Such was the power of the radio that I have had personally witnessed.

From its introduction early in the 20th century, the radio broadcast astonished and delighted the public by providing news and entertainment with an immediacy never before thought possible. Even though what is happening on the radio is mainly a one way conversation — the radio announcer or DJ talking on air, and the listeners on the other end — there was a form of conversation going on.

A virtual and indirect conversation or relationship existed between the radio announcer and the listeners.

Admittedly, it was a conversation of a different kind, something at the subconscious and the heart-to-heart level. Every word, every nuance, tone, pace and emphasis of the voice in the radio communicated efficiently and effectively to the listener, who has to be a good listener in the first place.

One can surmise that the radio has demonstrated the power of the human voice, in a uniquely personal way by invoking the listener’s imagination to fill in mental images around the voice and sounds broadcasted on radio. Maybe akin to watching a drama or okay being enacted on stage.

The words used played on the listeners imagination who develop their own mental images to complement what was happening on stage.

With its unique attributes, the radio can attract, entertain and enthral the listeners. In other words, there was some form of conversation going on. Just that it’s not the face to face type that we take for granted of or assume as the only form of proper conversation.

We have lost the ability to listen, assess, feel, absorb and reflect on what is being said. We tend to react quickly and speak up or, more accurately, to talk back before we fully and truly understood what was actually being said by the other speaker. And we are the poorer for it.

A lot may be said or exchanged, but there is hardly any conversation or real exchange or a meeting of the minds. So, in some sense, the radio is a far superior invention then other inventions, allowing for the space and distance that somehow works between the speaker and the listener.

By its nature, the radio draws the listener to really pay attention to what is being said, if a clear and correction understanding is what is desired.

In today’s context and environment, where our attention is being pulled in all directions, it has become even more critical that we have real conversation and communication. It’s from having such conversation that we will be able to resolve the myriads and complex issues and problems facing us.

Only from true conversation will we be able to get lasting consensus and sustainable agreement on how to proceed as a community or group.

We will be able to build bridges, not burn them down. We should tear down walls that divide, not build new ones or add layers to the existing walls.

The flow of engagement, interaction and conversation has to be envisaged as being from the top to the bottom of the pyramid and vice versa and overlapped by sideways and diagonal flows. And in other permutations which are in fact endless. And yet in all, it’s one unified and rich conversation that is taking place.

To a certain extent, that is what the radio does or what a real good conversation should entail. What is being said will become a topic of further and ongoing discussions or the subject of conversation as different listeners share what they have heard, how they have heard it, their understanding and interpretation, and what it means to them.

Such rich exchanges will give birth to new thoughts, ideas and generate further conversations. As someone has said, a word said is like an arrow which once it has left the bow, it will be impossible to get it back.

The blowdart in a blowpipe once shot will not return to the blowpipe. It will find its target, whether it’s the original target intended or something else.

Starting or engaging in a conversation comes with responsibilities. What is said cannot be unsaid, what is released will not come back to the mouth from where it came. Obviously, lies and untruths, even half-truths, are a no-no. So avoid them.

The truth will always prevail. The truth is like the sun — it lightens up the darkness and exposes all that is hidden. The lies will be exposed, sooner or later.

If we fail in having real conversation, we run the risk of building a world and a future of untruths, a flimsy world of make beliefs, whose pillars and bricks are made up of lies, excuses and untruths. A world which will put many in jeopardy, being easily manipulated, controlled,
and corralled like beasts of burden.

So, start having real, honest and heart to heart conversations. Pay attention to the precepts and wisdom that still exist around us.

Open our eyes and critically examine what we hear, see and feel. Are they genuine or just shades of half-truths? Or mere lies and disinformation, like the proverbial wolves in sheep clothing.

Perchance, we’ll escape this almost certain slippage down an increasingly slippery slope and into an uncertain and difficult future. A future where truths and untruths are indecipherable.

Listening and conversing well amongst ourselves is an art we should learn, amplify, and maybe, even resurrect, if it has gone dead. Sometimes, it’s not just what is being said that is important but how it is being said.

We all need to be reminded of this from time to time. Especially, if we want to be really heard and well understood.

The cover of the Sept 1963 ‘Radio Times’. Singapore was still part of Malaysia then. Photo: RTM Sarawak Archive
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