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The Dying Art of Conversation

At the dinner table, Dad is checking his emails from work, Mom is researching the average allowance for a teen-ager, and the kids are texting each other – literally, each other, at the same table.

They’re really looking at electronic devices, not each other. They’re together, but not engaged with each other. 

Whatever happened to dinner table conversation? Or any conversation? Is it a dying art? Have we abdicated to electronic communication?

The art of conversation may not be dead, but it’s in trouble, says Susan Adams, director of special projects for Peak Education, a local nonprofit designed to provide academic mentorship, leadership training and enhanced social skills to Harrison School District 2 students from middle school all the way through to college. 

“Part of the problem is our lifestyle,” says Adams. “Limited communal family dinners, teamed with the invasion of electronic devices, have diminished our young people’s ability to carry on an interactive conversation.”

She and Vennita Browning, program director, work with middle school kids to teach them social skills they might not learn at home, including conversational expertise. 

“One of the things we do is … encourage conversation from them. We put them in activities or small groups where they have to communicate with one another,” Adams says. “In addition, after instruction on physical presence – including proper posture, hand movements and eye contact – they are required to verbally present in front of their class on numerous occasions, and at joint family meetings. Both increase their self confidence and ease their anxiety in effectively speaking to and with others – a skill set they’ll use for years to come.”

Another program focusing on social graces is being offered by none other than the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Cadets must take social decorum and protocol training every year of their four years there. The program was featured in December on the “CBS Sunday Morning” television show.

The program starts with lectures during the first two years. Then, during their junior and senior years, the cadets actually attend a five-course formal dinner where they learn to use the right fork – and to carry on polite and engaging conversation with strangers.

These young officers will soon be thrust into that real-life situation and need to present themselves well, says Maj. Marie Juan-Roque, social decorum and protocol officer for the commandant of cadets.

“We all come from different places, so learning some basic (social skills) puts them all on the same page,” she says. 

Some of it is elementary – like not starting to eat until everyone at the table is served. But conversational skills are a bit trickier.

They get cheat-sheets – conversation starters printed on cards and placed by their plates. But eventually they get more comfortable with the process and most say they are glad to have had the experience, she says.

 And electronic devices, she says, are not allowed.

“If someone is expecting a truly important phone call, we tell them to excuse themselves, take it elsewhere, then return to the table,” she says.

The basis for their conversational training, she adds, is learning to ask good questions. What is your favorite restaurant here in town? Do you have siblings? Where did you grow up? All are good starters. 

Once the conversation gets rolling “most of them really seem to be enjoying themselves,” she says.

Juan-Roque is a natural for the job. She took the training herself when she was a cadet, from 2001 to 2005. Not naturally loquacious, she appreciated the help. 

 And, she confesses: “I still use some of those old conversation starters.”