I have often thought that a course of “Conversation 101” ought to be offered, not just in high schools or colleges but at youth hostels, senior centers, and in office directional meetings. The lessons would cause participants to look at how they converse with others and to examine what tactics undermine their social exchanges. Many times someone has attempted to talk with me, only to lead the conversation to a dead end. Often I have wanted to ask, “Do you understand what damage your talk inflicts?”

Years ago an American, responding to my disclosure that I once worked as au pair in Paris, France, responded by asking, “Where in Paris did you live?

I thought the question utterly irrelevant. What difference does it make at what long-ago address I resided in the course of twelve months?

I had anticipated a question that would allow me to explain the “au pair” system that had recruited me, or the language school I attended, or the children of my French family that I looked after, or the cooking and meal preparation that was very different from that to which I was accustomed, or my fondness for the French language, so mellifluous and pleasing to the ear as compared to my native German, or the translating skills I acquired in the course of that year, which I put to use once I returned to Germany. I might have alluded to the astoundingly joyless amorous affairs of the people I observed, as if adultery were but another social obligation to be gotten through, or that I had severed a misaligned love affair by fleeing to  France, an affair undertaken shortly after my mother’s death—which, thus, rendered me doubly unhappy. I would have liked to have explained how small and densely populated are European countries as compared to the U.S. Germany, for example, is about one and a half times the size of Wyoming, but compared to Wyoming’s total population of less than 600,000, that of Germany is 84 million.

Instead, I muttered something about a suburb called Bagneux at the outskirts of Paris, which one reached by metro to the Porte d’Orleans and by bus from there. Once my answer was articulated, the conversation stopped. Months later I happened to inquire of the man why he had asked the question of residence. He responded that he had once lived in Paris, though only briefly, and had hoped my answer would ring a bell.

“I was trying to establish some commonalty,” he said.

He would have been better off exclaiming, “Then we have something in common!” But perhaps he couldn’t fathom a commonality (though he briefly pursued the idea) with someone who in that city functioned a notch above a domestic.

This long-ago conversation came to mind recently when someone who more or less accidentally overheard me playing guitar said afterwards, “That was enjoyable.” If only he had paused there! But no, in the same breath he told me how his daughter, whenever she returned home from college, played piano “for hours on end.” This comment, too, effectively stopped the conversation. What could I say in response? I concluded he had paid me a compliment merely to get to a jumping-off point for bragging about his daughter. Perhaps a bit of one-upmanship was present as well: “You may own a guitar, but in my house we have a piano.”

The query about my residence in Paris was not the open-ended question of a skilled conversationalist: once it was answered, the talk was at an end. So was the infelicitous comment comparing my 15 minutes at the guitar to the daughter’s (presumably superior) several hours at the piano. Each response shot down the possibility for social interaction, leaving both conversation partners dissatisfied, slightly restless, and feeling diminished—at least, I certainly felt diminished, and restless to get away from the situation. Perhaps my interlocutor learned this modus of talking from his parents and passed it on to the children, which makes me suppose that there’s an entire family whose members are unhappy and lacking connection.

What might my listener have said instead? Well, he could have made an effort to express genuine interest. “Tell me what you like to play,” or “Why do you play guitar?” or “What goals do you pursue?” It happened, I was preparing for a visit to the family of my youngest, a son keenly attuned to music. Indeed, music is part of the conversation between us. Andy might be answering emails while I play. That he listens “with the third ear” will come out in a brief comment on the lovely resolution of a seventh note or the sorrow of an E-minor passage. I had dusted off a collection of popular pieces, bought long ago in a burst of nostalgia, which I’d later disdained as facile and commonplace. Recently I discovered that, though the tunes may be simplistic, their execution nonetheless presents technical challenges that are not at all “easy.” Hence I now practice via alternating the scores of Carulli or Sor with one of the folksy tunes; I want to see how my son will react to them. I am finding that, to arrive at a smooth rendition, I must practice even the uncomplicated ones, again and again.

The instant essay makes reference to conversations that happened with male individuals, but it wishes to make no sweeping “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” generalizations. Women can be as self-involved and/or tongue tied as males. I do think that today’s obsession with texting and email exacerbates the lack of conversational skills. Emails are not conversations: they are means to an end, namely the conveying of information. Conversations, on the other hand, are entered voluntarily and thereby strengthen social ties; when done well, the exchanges are lovely if small instances that help make life worth living.

The same is true of the communication that arrives via written disclosures. The best essayists, from Michel de Montaigne to E. B. White to the crop of today’s masterful writers are people who induce in the reader a participatory feeling, as if he or she were playing a vital role in a delightful conversation. True, some essays mostly tout the “I, me, and myself” rhetoric; more often than not, these have been composed by fiction writers or other scribblers as yet unskilled in the art of listening. Those who have mastered the genre astound me with their good humor and depth of perception, not to mention absence of chauvinism and ideological grandstanding. I am just now perusing Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably as well as a collection by Malcolm Gladwell—and I am glad for the exercise.

"Conversation 101" would teach individuals how to keep the conversation going by asking open-ended questions or offering comments that permit the conversation partner to expand on the topic. It means learning to listen "with the third ear."