The Further Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 2: Jon’s Adventures in Conversation Land

Dr John Reed spent 8 years at Oxford University (amassing 3 social science degrees including a Ph.D).  He worked for several years with historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin (author of the likes of ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’ and ‘Conversation’) on conversation projects in health centres, shopping centers, high streets, art galleries, libraries, choirs, and even IKEA to see if it could be turned into a cultural and community hub. 

At Say It Now, John is our ‘conversationalist in residence’. Raising the bar in our understanding and thinking of the immense power conversation has on the human experience in relation to life, the universe and everything in between.

In this realm he’s no longer Dr. John Reed, in this world, he’s…Conversation Man!

Howdy, how’s your conversational life been hanging this month? Low, high, or somewhere in between? For Conversation Man it’s been an interesting, varied, month on the conversational front. The highlights being:

– A 15 mile conversational walk around London with a photo-journalist I’d never met before, re-creating my ex rock n roll neighbours ‘dating tour’ from the ‘90s, on which we bumped into a ‘conversational bench’ which you could text questions to.

– An interesting conversation outside an art gallery with a poet whose work is inspired by conversations with AI, who put me onto an anthology of digital-AI inspired poetry entitled ‘Virtual Oasis’ by Trick House Press.

– A conversation with a friend who works for a firm of theoretical architects and wants to set up an ‘ideas exchange’ cafe, as she struggles to find interesting conversation, or other stimulus, in London cafes. Which got us talking about ‘conversational architecture’.

I also have a confession to make, namely that this month I’d been hoping to test out and blog about the conversational couples app ‘Closer to you’, but unfortunately the woman I’ve been seeing disappeared for a month and then dumped me. Which, ironically, didn’t give me much chance to try out ‘Closer to you’. As, unfortunately for me, most of her conversation about ‘us’ had been in her own head, and I mostly got to hear the conclusions, albeit in a somewhat interactive fashion.

But who should come to my conversational-blog rescue than my SayItNow colleagues Charlie Chatterbox and Dalveen Discourse. With whom I had a video call, on which we discussed SayItNow’s recent work with various charities, helping them to raise money for their good causes with interactive, voice-engaged, radio style ads.

Our chief topic of discussion being what philanthropy means, in theory and in practice. As after all philanthropy is supposed to mean love of, and thereby care for, people. Which is after all what motivates people to give their hard earned cash to good causes rather than just spend it on yet more wine. But equally most of us have probably, at one time or another, got a bit fed up of being constantly begged at by charities, in the street or elsewhere, as if all we are to them is a source of loose change.

What’s interesting, in this regard, about voice-AI advertising is thereby its ability to begin to build not just a conversation, but a kind of relationship, with the customer or in this case ‘giver’. As rather than just being begged, or sold, at in a linear fashion it’s more human, and fulfilling, to engage in an exchange which is more open ended and leaves one feeling better informed, heard and having involved one’s curiosity.

And it’s perhaps worth considering what we might learn about conversation, and related relationships, both positive and negative, from my assorted conversational experiences this month. As such lessons, or principles, may well be informative in their own right, but also be relevant to conversations and relationships in the realm of AI and business. So, in no particular order, these are Conversation Man’s conversational lessons of the month:

A) Time and space. A long walk, a long taxi ride, an elongated cigarette break outside an art opening, drinks into the small hours, an evening conversation salon, an email exchange. These were some of the scenarios that led to interesting conversations for me this month, and while it’s not always easy to find such moments in a hectic life, without them it’s hard to have reflective conversations.

B) Being present. Even in the right circumstances conversation still needs the right kind of attention, and desire, from both participants, to get off the ground. In this regard it perhaps helps that I’m Conversation Man, who’s thereby often in a fairly conversational frame of mind, as I don’t have that much else to do. But all of us have the power to conjure up our inner Conversation Person, from time to time. Although quite how to access that person, in a busy, distracted, life can be a challenge, which is perhaps where individual or social rituals come in. Such as meditation, or ‘having a cup of tea / beer’, or ‘having a cigarette’, or ‘going for a walk’, or other ways to get yourself in a more reflective frame of mind.

C) Exploration. Good conversations tend to be exploratory, which means getting outside of one’s comfort zone, culturally and socially. Part of which involves getting beyond one’s professional or social bubble and finding ways to expand your conversational circle. This also involves an ability to deal with one’s inevitable social and intellectual anxiety, as however clever and knowledgeable one is a good conversation will inevitably take one somewhat off piste, with the related risk of falling over or bumping into a tree. In London in particular life often seems to end up being arranged around ‘industries’, and one challenge is to find topics, or problems, which transcend a particular occupational niche and can thereby help one’s conversational life fly into a more universal territory.

D) Spontaneity and accident. It’s hard to engineer, or institutionalise, interesting conversations. Most of mine happen fairly randomly, but equally one needs to be in the right sort of territory for something to happen. For example this month some of my conversations were ‘organised’, like attending a conversation salon about ‘freedom of speech’ or taking a stranger on a 15 mile cultural walk. And others emerged in social settings where you might expect the possibility of an interesting conversation, such as at an art opening or an after pub get together at someone’s flat. But equally some just happened fairly randomly, such as in an unexpected long Uber ride with a friend whom I’d bumped into at an art show.

E) Knowledge. It’s hard to have an interesting conversation with someone if you don’t know anything about the world, or its cultural reference points, or other people, but equally if you are an expert on everything then there’s not much point talking to people other than to tell them how it is. Interesting knowledge of course also comes to you via other people, which is why ideally one has a variety of people from different industries and perspectives to discuss things with. For example this month I had conversations with a photo-journalist, an architect, a fundraiser, a poet, an artist, a Fin-Tech start-up-er, a designer, a politics student, a marketing data guy, a barista, and a voice-ad start up person. Which is reasonably diverse, albeit perhaps inevitably rather confined to the sorts of media-tech-arts characters one finds in inner London.

F) Meta balance. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t analyse, or want to get beyond the surface of, things. But equally chewing absolutely everything over all the time soon becomes tedious and neurotic, and one needs a balance between living and analysing. I learnt this first hand this month when, whilst in effect being dumped, one of my (now ex) love’s gripes about ‘us’ was that I’d constantly been trying to figure out and define what ‘we’ were about, and meant. As I suppose I wasn’t quite sure, which irked me. But she said that on her part she really wasn’t that concerned with these questions, and just wanted to live it, for now at least. So maybe I’d gone a bit too meta, too quickly.

G) Empathy. However objective we may think we are, our views of the world are inevitably coloured by our own personal experience and thereby feelings about things. But it may not always be obvious what lies beneath our opinions. Take my Uber ride conversation for example, during which our conversation about gender, sexual harassment, and Woody Allen got quite heated on her part at one point. And it turned out that her view of Woody Allen, as a disgusting pervert creep who should be locked up, was partly coloured by her own experiences of sexual harassment and assault by men. Where as my view was partly coloured by having a psycho-stalker ex-girlfriend who’d become obsessed with me for no particular reason, who if I was better known may well have tried to destroy me publicly. But once we understood where we were coming from, personally, we had a better conversation.

H) Letting go. Sometimes you’ve got to try to hold onto, persist in, or fight for what you want or believe is right in a conversational or relationship context, but sometimes there’s no solution and thereby no point. For example I could have tried to fight being dumped by my GenZ lover, but as we talked it became apparent that the underlying problem was her recurring depression, and for her own welfare we had to stop seeing each other, as some elements were too intense for her.

I) Love is a conversation. Half the people I meet at the moment seem to be ‘polyamorous’, where you have various different lovers in an open, overt, respectful fashion (as opposed to just cheating on people behind their back). All of which inevitably makes things emotionally more complex, particularly as a couple, and thereby requires a further layer of conversational awareness to keep the show on the road. In my case I wasn’t that great at being in a ‘non-exclusive’ relationship, albeit for a few months, as even though her sleeping around mostly just amounted to after party hedonism (in my absence) it still irked, and titillated, me in equal measure, which she ultimately found a bit alienating. But even though we broke up, for other reasons, she said what she most liked about our relationship was the conversations, where she felt we connected on a deep level. And because of that we are still keeping in touch. The point being that most love affairs, whilst they may begin and end with desire, tend to require a foundation of conversation, and thereby friendship, to sustain them.

J) Converse, don’t cancel. At this conversation salon about ‘free speech’ one of the main topics was ‘cancel culture’. And how there seem to be a lot of people around these days, particularly on social media, who aren’t really interested in having a conversation with anyone they disagree with, or are at existential odds with. Rather they are so certain of what they think, or feel, that they either just want to ghost you, or destroy you. But by and large I think, where possible, it’s more interesting and useful to keep the possibility of conversation alive, even if that’s difficult. As while some topics may be black and white, many are a shade of grey.

K) Converse, don’t sell. During a fag break at the pub to watch the football I was chatting to an old pal of mine whose job is to sell packages of marketing data to clients, albeit at Director level. And he said his job was, by now, often quite easy as he’d genuinely become good mates with various big clients, his sales job often thereby lasting about 5 seconds, and the getting pissed and chatting about life lasting about 5 hours. Which is perhaps a testament to the fact that often the best way to get what you want in life, be that a job, a lover, or a sale, isn’t to rabidly strategise, manipulate and scheme, but just to be your open, human self, and with any luck the rest will follow.

To draw this all together I’ve been wondering this month about getting a new toilet. There’s nothing particularly wrong with my existing toilet, functionally speaking, except that I’ve been doing some research and I’ve realised that my bog stand toilet is now worthy of the Middle Ages. As, as ever, the Japanese in particular are way ahead of us in the realm of the ‘shower-toilet’, in effect a combined bidet-toilet which, after you’ve done your business, washes your relevant parts with warm water and then (depending on the model) blow dries you. It becoming clear to me that all this wasteful, unhygienic, inefficient, dermatologically abrasive, faffing around with toilet paper and wipes is absurd, and warm water wash and blow dry is the way forward.

A high end shower-toilet doesn’t come cheap, of course, and requires electrical wiring which may mean re-decoration of your bathroom. But what’s more important, on a daily basis, than a comfortable, clean, arse? But to relate this back to conversation, and AI, the highest end Japanese models also heat the seat, sing to you, play music, spray fragrance in the air, and, apparently, talk to you. And thereby I honestly believe that one day we’ll have conversational toilets, as part of our daily bathroom rituals, who’ll regale us with toilet poetry and toilet insight, and who’ll with any luck subscribe to the above principles of good conversation.

Yours, Conversation Man

p.s. a good conversation is after all a journey, with others. And so if you’ve got any thoughts about, or stimulated by, any of the above, or there’s a topic or question raised you’d like to hear more about, or there’s something going on which you feel is relevant, do email me at . If you missed Episode 1, you can read it below.

See you in episode 3…