The lost art of conversation

Natalie Hart 13 October 2007

What’s your name?’, ‘What do you study?’: the two questions that have been on the lips of every fresher this past week. The odd couple may have stretched to “what are you reading?” (proving that they are already wise in the ways of intellectual lingo), and perhaps even “which college are you at?” from those already brave enough to venture beyond their own porter’s lodge, or who are studying a slightly obscure subject where the small student numbers make early mixing unavoidable.

Let’s be honest: it’s boring. When the ethnic-jewellery clad gapper in the JCR confesses that even he is tired of reciting the far-flung destinations of his round-the-world voyage, you know it’s bad. In our rush to meet the masses we so often fail to make any real bonds at all; student X merges with student Y, and you struggle to remember whether the person eating opposite you in hall is a linguist or a lawyer. Did the ice-breaking activities break any ice at all?

As the incessant grilling on my choice of subject began to grate this week, I retreated to Café Nero. There is something blissful about the anonymity and solitude that one can find in a bustling coffee shop, and yet this particular occasion actually served to restore my faith in conversations. As I sat mournfully casting an eye over the summer’s intended reading list, I was approached by a blue-eyed stranger who asked if he could join me. As I mumbled a reply and pushed my already mountainous pile of textbooks to one-side, I assumed that all the other seats were taken. On glancing up I realised that there were in fact many vacant options and that this person had made a conscious effort to sit with me. Perhaps it stems from being English, or perhaps it is being the daughter of constabulary, but I am a suspicious person. If a random male approaches I assume they are interested in one of two things: my body (which was in a less than attractive state due to an over-indulgence in freshers’ week alcohol deals) or my wallet (currently well and truly empty after a failure to post off various loan forms on time). On this occasion, however, the only thing to open was my mind.

With our beloved Cambridge ‘bubble’ being a bit of an intellectual hotspot, one should not really be overly surprised at having a stimulating conversation, but this one ranks amongst my favourites so far. We discussed everything. From the intricate differences between arabic dialects in Chad and Palestine, to architectural comparisons of Cambridge and medieval France, we had it covered. I may not be able to tell you my stranger’s college, but I could reel off his spiritual inclinations and future aspirations faster than a Newnhamite can spring from bed to the Sidgwick site.

A couple of hours later, the conversation ended. We shook hands and he departed without exchanging so much as a name for potential Facebook stalking. I was left with the satisfying feeling that you get after being dragged kicking and screaming through the intellectual maze of the most testing supervision, and emerge the other side exhausted but enlightened. But why is this so rare?

Perhaps the tedious and paltry conversations of freshers’ week can be considered a microcosm for the state of modern day conversation. We simply do not have time. Students dash from one new acquaintance to another, driven on by a deep fear of grooving solo to the cheese of the college bop. Yet if they spent a little longer letting conversations develop, those initial friendships might just prove to last.

My revelatory café conversation has been a turning point for me, and rather than reeling off the usual homogenous questions to every new face encountered this week I have tried to initiate slightly more engaging conversations. Blanche DuBois may have depended on the kindness of strangers, but I for one prefer their conversation.

Natalie Hart