We underestimate the value of experiences. A well thought out conversation delivers on many levels, including the emotional sphere. That hard-to-reach spot between fuzzy feeling and moved to tears is the core of how we operate in the real world.
It is thus not surprising that seasoned pros would seek situations where they get to experience feeling their way through what they think about -- this is how good conversation works.
Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, has mastered the art of opening up. Her guests relish the opportunity to experience what it's like to have that kind of interview:
Matthew Weiner, the creator of ‘‘Mad Men,’’ has been among the most frequent guests on ‘‘Fresh Air.’’ He imagined being interviewed by Gross years before it first happened, and once it did, ‘‘you’re like: Oh, this is my fantasy of a conversation,’’ Weiner told me. ‘‘I’m not even talking about people hearing it. I’m talking about actually having the conversation.’’
‘‘Having the conversation’’ — that’s what’s compelling about the wish. It’s a wish not for recognition but for an experience. It’s a wish for Gross to locate your genius, even if that genius has not yet been expressed. It’s a wish to be seen as in a wish to be understood.
In conversation we can bridge the distance we have within ourselves, and with others. This is why conversation is important. The intimacy the medium affords is why radio is not obsolete. As Italian singer Mina wrote an article for La Stampa on her take of what listening to the radio used to be (my translation):
In a world that has alas celebrated the extinction of the verb ‘‘to listen’’ what is left is visual enslavement. In such a world, radio is a last oasis, a natural environment where among bushes and stones one can still find everything -- literature and gossip, from Cole Porter to Puccini, from politics to some extinct musical form. On the radio, it is still possible to find words offered to the listener with that tact that TV abhors.
Carlo Emilio Gadda was an engineer from Milan who worked in Italy, Belgium and Argentina. He became a full time writer around 1940 in Florence and then in the 1950s in Rome, where he worked for RAI (Italian National TV). In 1953, when RAI asked him to write up a compendium of "Policies for Radio Programming", Gadda wrote:
‘‘Radio listeners are not a 'public', so to speak. In truth, they are 'single people'... every listener is alone... sitting in their own armchair, after having captured the essence... the noble act of listening, he/she is bound to the secret susceptibility of being able to get irritated by the inopportune tone of a catechizing radio apparatus.
It is therefore better that the voice, and the text entrusted to it, avoid all those mannerisms that provoke the idea of a condescending tone, an imparted lesson, a sermon, a message coming from on high. It is equal to equal, free citizen to free citizen, thinking brain to thinking brain.’’
Equal to equal, with the freedom to think along the person thinking out loud -- thinking brain to thinking brain. This more nuanced form of experience is likely one of the reasons behind the renaissance of podcasts.
It takes practice and a highly developed sense of timing to create these kinds of conversations. From the NYT article:
Over the years, Gross has done some 13,000 interviews, and the sheer range of people she has spoken to, coupled with her intelligence and empathy, has given her the status of national interviewer. Think of it as a symbolic role, like the poet laureate — someone whose job it is to ask the questions, with a degree of art and honor.
In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.
Good conversation is an act of deep listening. Take for example when Terry Gross interviews Jon Stewart.
We rarely forget the experience we have with a good conversation -- it changes us, and we change the way we look at things as a result.
[image by Joyce Culver/92nd Street Y]