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On the Misuse of the Word, 'Conversation'

Submitted by Leo Klein on Sun, 2/4/07 (3:14pm)

Is it me or does the use of the word, 'conversation' for just about any communication between human beings cause others to cringe as well?

First, the guy on our local NPR Station talked of having some politician in for a "conversation" back in March; then Hillary Clinton runs on a platform called "Let the Conversation Begin". Now, a report just out on social networks in libraries is called, "Participatory Networks: The Library as Conversation". It concludes (not surprisingly): "...[T]here is now a need to broaden both the scope and scale of the conversation." [link]

Is there no end to this? It's like using 'luxury' to describe condo units. The word begins to lose all meaning -- or even worse begins to take on the opposite of what's intended -- simply because it's used so much.

When I hear 'conversation', increasingly I think: 'insincere attempt to get my attention for trivial, banal or commercial purposes'. Sorry, but I'm just conversation'ed out.

12 comments

by Michelle on Tue, 2/6/07 (11:51am)

Leo,
While I agree with you that the word conversation is technically being used incorrectly, I think this is just one of those times when we can see the evolution of a word.

As a lover of diction, words change all the time. The OED was created to chart those changes. Though the overuse of the word, for which I am guilty as well, is becoming commonplace, the content of the use does not bother me.

by Leo Klein on Tue, 2/6/07 (12:29pm)

Well, I'm happy to wait till it hits the OED in all its manifestations!

I don't think it will -- or perhaps not in the way its abusers think -- but where there's life there's conversation!

In any case, thanks for the note.

by David Lankes on Sun, 2/11/07 (7:43pm)

Hi, Sorry, but I posted this tot he wrong post the first time...apologies.

We didn't choose the word randomly, nor casually. It comes from the precepts of Conversation Theory framed originally in the 1970's. It talks about how knowledge is created through interchanges, a back and forth to arrive at common understandings and meanings. Of course academia, like many other fields is guilty of extending or abusing terms, but it seems to fit here.

We also went around a few rounds with some commentors on the topic and thought hard about it. In the original draft we used the term more expansively (a conversation with a book), but restricted it in the final drafts to human discourse (in-person or mediated by some sort of technology). We ended up sticking with it not only because of the conversation theory origin, but also because it reflects an equal partnership between the parties involved in the interchange.

However, we also decided to push the "participatory" term in front of conversation (participatory networks, participatory librarianship). The point of the paper is that knowledge is created, and therefore should be organized around how people come to understand topics, not the artifacts created through the process.

So my question back to you...is this a conversation we are having? How do you bound the definition? What term would you suggest in its place?

Thanks for thinking about this.

by Leo Klein on Sun, 2/11/07 (9:00pm)

Hi David,

First thanks for the response. And I'll remove the comment on the other post.

To be honest, I didn't approach the word "Conversation" in your paper from the context of the 1970's. I didn't need to. I approached it, not surprisingly, from how it's used (and abused) in 2007.

I think my original post makes that clear.

Words change meaning all the time. Certain words get overused and fall out of fashion. I don't want to be the human thesaurus to your use of language, but replacement words with far less baggage are easy enough to find.

by David Lankes on Mon, 2/12/07 (6:33am)

I reread the post, and I see you think the word is over used and is loosing its meaning, but I don't actually see your definition. What is the definition of conversation that everyone is varying from?

by Leo Klein on Mon, 2/12/07 (10:08am)

Here's my definition: it's overused to imply sincerity and engagement beyond anything warranted in the material itself. It's self-consciously pretentious and routinely distorts the type of communication actually taking place.

Now I can find a hundred examples of where it's used in this way.

It's hard then to avoid these associations despite the efforts of people like you. It's just the English language in its current usage.

by Danny Bloom on Sun, 8/16/09 (2:18am)

Leo, I agree with 10000000%. If that is possible. You are a good word spotter and a better word maven. I love this blog, which I just stumbled upon here in... Taiwan. Go figure.

by the way, Leo, wonder what you might think about my new coinage, neologism is what Alex Beam calls it in his June 19 Boston Globe column, titled "I screen, you screen, we all screen" google it, hint hint.... -- i want to call reading on screens as "screening" in order to differentiate it from real reading which i feel only takes place on paper surfaces? agree or disagree? and ask me why I am doing this so publicly and am trying to get the NYTimes to cover me on this idea?

by Brian Pearce on Sat, 2/27/10 (7:06pm)

No, you're not alone. It makes me cringe. "Conversation" is one of several fad words propagated by broadcast media with astounding speed. NPR and its affiliates are especially fond of the word. One reason, I suppose, is its length. In Newsspeak, long but readily understood words are in vogue--"actually", "absolutely" for "yes", "opportunity", "experience" as a verb to replace "have", "see", etc., "additional" instead of "more" or "extra", "necessarily" and many others. By the same token, short words are out (listen as your NPR reporter glibly showcases English 2.0 by dropping "if", "and", "of", "it's", "is", "in", and other "piddling" little words, or pads them (e.g., "in" becomes "in terms of"). Of a piece with these gimmicks are substituting "to have a conversation with" in place of "to talk with", and "conversation" for "interview." An added attraction--"conversation" rings of the blogsphere, making it an irresistibly trendy substitution for talking heads bored with plain English. Finally, "conversation" has a warm, fuzzy and inclusive ring. With all due respect to 1970s pulp philosophies, I don't want the media playing softball or paddycakes. They are not FDR--their business is not fireside chats. And I don't want them reinventing the language to relieve their boredom from having to deliver so much of it. Perhaps Humbboldt University website on its media course puts it best:
"Think interview, not conversation
You're informing the public, making a case, not engaging in dialogue." The gimmickery behind "conversation" is the converse of this common sense.

by Rob Westberg on Sat, 2/8/14 (12:29am)

Such descriptive terms as discussion and debate seemed to have been morphed into that now overused word.

The only reason for it must be the continued dumbing down of language. Perhaps 'let's debate the issues' or 'take part in the discussion' sound too harsh and unfriendly in the pseudo world of our Facebook culture where we're all best buddies because we click 'like' on what our 'friends' had for breakfast this morning.

LIKE, whoEVER wants to debate the meaning of words? WhatEVER!

by Leo Klein on Sat, 2/8/14 (10:33pm)

Well, I guess the comforting thought is, the more often this cliche is used, the quicker it will fall out of favor and become the semantic embarrassment it clearly deserves to be.

Funny, people rush to these words so quickly; yet they don't realize how transient such fashion-talk is.

by Peter Krohn on Tue, 7/28/15 (3:40am)

The phrase "...let's have a conversation about ..." has become endemic in Australia. We are constantly enjoined by our politicians to have a "national conversation" about tax, for example. In the media TV and radio hosts urge us to join "the conversation". Use of the words "discussion" and "debate" have almost completely fallen by the wayside.

by Leo Klein on Wed, 7/29/15 (12:38am)

My sympathies.