Salons: The Joy of Conversation
by Jaida N'Ha Sandra, Jon Spayde and the editors of Utne Reader
$16.95, New Society Publishers, 221 pages, 2002Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore
Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future
by Margaret Wheatley
$15.95, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 158 pages, 2002
Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore
At a book festival in Seattle, not long after September 11, I heard a reading by Israeli novelist and peace activist Amos Oz. Afterward, a member of the audience asked Oz his opinion of a movement that brought Israelis and Palestinians together in coffeehouses to discuss issues. His response was skeptical. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn't a case of misunderstanding, he asserted; both sides lay claim to the land, and no amount of talking was going to change that. Oz went on to say that in North America there exists a popular but slightly naïve belief that if everyone could just get together and talk about social problems, we'd solve them.
I don't think it's necessarily naïve. Certainly, salons and conversation groups aren't the magic pill that will instantly cure the world's ills. But often, extreme positions and stereotypes are born of failing to listen to real people talk about their real, complex beliefs. Conversation groups give everyday people a chance to put a human face on political and social issues.
In addition, salons hold a certain attraction for North Americans because we've lost much of our public space. Suburban highways, strip malls, and long work days have isolated us, and now there's a renewed yearning for events and places that allow us to connect.
Organized salons are one way to reclaim the valuable art of public conversation.
Two recent books aspire to keep that conversation flowing: The revised edition of Salons by Jaida N'Ha Sandra and Jon Spayde of Utne Reader and Margaret Wheatley's Turning To One Another.
The Utne Reader book is a practical guide that grew out of a 1991 cover story on salons. This revised edition is packed with hands-on information about group talk. The authors carefully lay out advice for starting, organizing, and running salons. Much of this nuts-and-bolts advice has been culled from feedback from hundreds of salons the magazine helped inspire.
Thoughtful sections aim at improving readers' salon skills: practicing the art of listening, focusing on brevity over long-windedness, and remembering to stay light-hearted and avoid over-earnestness. Sandra and Spayde tackle tricky issues, including dealing with a salon member who won't follow agreed-upon rules. For those organizing conversation groups, Salons: The Art of Conversation is an essential resource.
Wheatley's book is decidedly more inspirational. The author's resume is a full one; she's an outspoken leadership consultant, motivational speaker, poet, and founder of the Berkana Institute, an organization dedicated to life-affirming leadership. Unlike the authors of the Utne Reader guide, who have no overt agenda other than bringing people together, Wheatley wants to change the world.
Turning to One Another is founded on the premise that things are not right on the planet in 2002, that we live in a disconnected society—but a society that can be made better through talk. In a series of brief essays, inspirational quotations, poems, and epigrams, Wheatley meditates on the power of conversation groups to overturn our assumptions and create a better life.
As the Utne Reader guide makes clear, salons have long been a crucible where new movements were forged: Germaine de Stael's salons fomented dissent against Napoleon, Gertrude Stein's salons helped inspire the modernist movement in 1920s Paris, and the informal gatherings at A'Lelia Walker Robinson's home sparked the Harlem Renaissance. Wheatley, in her work with grass-roots activists, was told time and time again that a movement began when “some friends and I started talking.”
The core of Wheatley's book offers “conversation starters” on topics that seem even more appropriate after September 11: What is my faith in the future? What is my unique contribution to the whole? When have I experienced working for the common good? These topics may seem a bit vague, but as Wheatley has discovered, it's often these big-life topics (rather than say, a more specific discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) that generate the most personal, meaningful, and passionate discussions.
In listening lies the answer, I think, to Oz's skepticism. For in addition to providing a place to talk, salons teach us—above all else—the art of listening. Those participating in salons soon discover that they spend most of their time hearing what others have to say. Through active listening—which both books attempt to cultivate—we begin to understand others and dig ourselves out of entrenched positions.