Amelia Hill, education correspondent
Sunday February 20, 2005
The art of conversation is dead but the artistry of chatter is thriving, with Britons overwhelmingly admitting they rarely talk about anything more serious than traffic and television.
According to a survey of more than 2,000 adults, almost two-thirds of us admit to indulging in shallow chit-chat at the expense of weighty dialogue - even though we secretly long for more meaningful exchanges.
'Brits have lost the skill of conversation,' said Ronald Carter, conversation expert and professor of English Language at Nottingham University. 'Considered communication has been the first casualty of our rushed, modern lives.
'We can't exchange thoughts and opinions reflectively when we're in a hurry and so we resort to banal banter,' said Carter, who has published more than 20 books and 100 papers on different aspects of spoken language. 'We have got used to chatter and have stopped making the effort to reach any more significant conversational depth.'
The survey, by Telewest Broadband, found that despite the cultural stereotype, the British weather is no longer regarded as an acceptable topic of small talk. Instead, we prefer talking about last night's TV, office gossip and traffic.
Carter believes that considered opinions are the first casualty of an excess of small talk. 'Too much chatter means we keep our real thoughts to ourselves,' he said. 'We risk becoming rigid and thoughtless in our opinions,' he added.
But Dr Jonathan Miller, the neuroscience researcher, TV presenter and author, disagrees. 'Conversation is not an art and anyway, big conversation bores me,' he said. 'Turn-taking in conversation is the important thing. I'm interested in how people watch each other when they are conversing, how they respond to various topics, rather than what those topics are.'
Lemn Sissay, named as one of the 50 key black British writers, fetes small talk: 'Talking about traffic and patio doors is the Western Buddhist mantra,' he said. It's a way we can find inner peace in today's society. Small talk can give away so much more about people, and be much more fascinating than big talk. I truly respect those who can sit around and discuss patio doors for half an hour and get something out of it.'
The survey also found that more than two -thirds of people believe the telephone is the best way to have intelligent conversations, although Ned Sherrin, presenter of Loose Ends , the Radio 4 comedy show, a lexicographer and author of 20 books, admits hating the telephone. 'I would rather see the contours of their face, the clouds and the flicker of their tears. I find the telephone irritating and unsatisfactory, and like to get them over with as quickly as possible,' he said.