When I was very young, still at home with my parents, Dad expected us to have what he called “polite conversation” at the kitchen table. Everything was a learning opportunity, so he delighted in having a captive audience while we sat for meals. We said grace, kept our elbows off the table, and were expected to “converse” while we ate our cold cereal, our afternoon sandwich, or our casserole at dinner.
Topics got more difficult in high school and college. Gone were the days of discussing what we had learned in school that day; we were expected to discuss the news from the front section of the newspaper, something Walter Cronkite had reported on the Evening News, or the many uses of math in one’s life.
It may sound like a drag, but it stuck with me, and I likewise expected my three to participate in “polite conversation” during our sit-down meals. Likewise, my grandchildren cringe when I subject them to inquisitions about their everyday life, their progress in math, and the latest book they’ve read.
Polite conversation is a dying art. It should be taught to children, just like we should teach them manners, cleanliness, and empathy. I’ve known highly educated people who lack in all three. They flash their degrees and their fat pay checks in others’ faces, but they talk down to others while they have their elbows on the table and their mouths are full.
I thank my dad for teaching me the difference between being talked at and inviting someone into the conversation. He taught me to be articulate, well-read, and not afraid to speak cogently on any subject, but he also taught me to listen to what others have to say and to value their opinion.