Conversation as Hobby

Published Friday, Dec. 28, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Have you chosen a New Years resolution for 2008? Why not take up a new hobby? I’d like us all to take up the same hobby in 2008: conversation.

I know “conversation” is not an official hobby — it’s never included on those compatibility checklists. But it should be. And here’s the beauty of it. Eugene can become the birthplace for a great American hobby. Again.

Forty-five years ago, Bill Bowerman returned to Eugene from New Zealand and he brought jogging with him. It spread like wildfire across the nation, but the flame started here. Until Bowerman began his crusade, jogging was just Getting Somewhere A Little Quicker.

Who would have dreamed Oregon’s richest corporation would design clothes to run in? But admit it — when you see somebody running and they aren’t properly attired, you wonder what they may be fleeing. A bank robber is well advised to wear a jogging suit, so if running does become necessary, it won’t look suspicious to the rest of us.

Before the jogging craze, there were runners, and then there were the rest of us. It was a sport if you ran, and a spectacle if you didn’t. Hasn’t “talking together” divided itself just as neatly? There are the activists, debaters, policy wonks. Anyone not counted among them is on the sidelines, watching.

Bowerman’s pitch to “regular people” was that the very act of running, no matter how fast, is good for you. It builds muscle and endurance that is useful for everything else you do. And also, lo and behold, it can be fun. Unlike in sport, there is no winning. The reward is in the doing it. You’re improving yourself.

Conversation can do all of that. But first, let’s distinguish conversation from the four D’s: debate, dialogue, discourse and discussion. Debate declares winners. Dialogue includes only two. Discourse overlooks listening. And discussion promotes a decision. Conversation uses each skill displayed by the four D’s, but the whole is something greater. You become a better person.

Conversation has no determined outcome. It welcomes extra voices. It engages the silent, often by shifting the subject. A good conversation needn’t finish where it began. If everyone finds themselves surprised, you’ve had a great conversation. You’ve also worked important brain muscles: curiosity is rewarded, discoveries are made, connections are found where none were apparent.

Eugene deserves this. When an out-of-towner dreamed up a slogan for us, he got it almost right. We believe we’re unique, but being the “greatest” requires constant effort. Better to be “first.” Less upkeep.

We’re the first place of American jogging. We can also host America’s birth of modern conversation. What better gift could Eugene give the nation?

We’re already part way there. Goodness knows, plenty of our talking gets us nowhere. It must be building some sort of stamina. Why else would outsiders be so continually and consistently astounded at our capacity to “just keep going?”

If we’re going to do this, ironically, it can’t be just talk. We’ll have to stretch ourselves, feel the burn, get past the initial discomfort until it becomes enjoyable and maybe even a little addictive.

Good conversation requires one D that we struggle to find: diversity. When people talk together because they have common interests, the talk naturally follows familiar paths. Where will you find diversity? Walk out your front door and look to the left and to the right.

Here’s a specific exercise to get you started. Invite your neighbors on each side over to chat. Forbid only two topics: fences and other neighbors. Require only one thing in return: that they each host you and the neighbors who border them over for a similar chat. No skipping houses. Everybody plays.

But what will you talk about? Ah, that’s exactly the point! You may discover two of you were bowling champs in junior high, that all of you are middle children from large families, that each of you prefers butter to margarine. Who knows?

If each of us gets to know our neighbors, we’re building something more than our conversation muscles. We’re building our neighborhoods, and our community, and maybe also our nation. Think of Americans everywhere conversing for the fun of it.

The nation will then look to Oregon for a conversation clothier.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) promotes curiosity and conversation anywhere he can. Readers can join the conversation at his blog, right here, where past and future columns are posted and comments are always welcome.