“Sterile Chit-Chat” by Richard Sale


 “The greatest achievement of human society and one of its rarest pleasures is conversation,” aid Jacque Barzun, an historian who taught at Columbia University when I was there.

Today, who believes such a statement to be true?

Is conversation today the greatest achievement of human society? Fat chance, as they used to say.

Over the holidays, my wife and I went to a small party at a friend’s house. We are very close to the family. One son is becoming a State Dept. intern in Croatia next year.  I was eager to heart him out.

Instead, a mother and her daughter arrived late and the daughter, in her twenties, was eager to hold the floor. The daughter began by saying that she has a sister who moved from South Carolina to somewhere in North Carolina, and then she began a  rambling dissertation about a railway line being developed here in N.C. where my wife and I live. One line was based in Durham, and it was going to run to the airport, but someone contradicted this, saying that it stopped short of the airport, and the daughter went on anyway.  Then she began to talk about some housing program in the state, and there was nothing in what she said that was worth knowing. Clearly, she felt no mercy for her listeners.

Remember, as a member of the group, I did not want to stir up conflict; I only wanted to stir up interest. In  any case, everyone was glassy-eyed when the daughter finished. It was clear we were dealing with a mind of dead sediment and what was needed was an energetic fish to suddenly stir up a momentary disturbance. Alas, there wasn’t one. The sediment soon just settled back to what it was, entirely dead.

In the car after we left, I was nettled.  My wife said to me, “Look — they were simply ordinary people talking about ordinary things. They have a right to do that.’ I countered by saying, “Fine. But I retain the right not to listen to them,” and quoted Walter Bagehot, the great 19th century critic who said that “ordinary people use what brains they have, but it usually doesn’t amount to much.”

There was another disheartening incident.

We recently hosted a small gathering where the women talked a lot about retail stores closing, women’s outfits, etc. To my relief, I found a man whose nephew who was studying in Estonia. He was studying at a university the name of which his uncle couldn’t recall.  I told him that Putin was creating trouble in the Baltic States and Finland. According to news reports, NATO’s expansion into Poland and the Baltic countries,  which I had devoutly opposed,  had put Putin in a position where he felt he had to strike back and take Georgia and Ukraine.  In any case, Putin wants to erode western support for the Baltic States who are under NATO’s protection.

My guest replied that Putin always causes trouble, and I waited, but that was the end of that. I sincerely wanted to learn more about his nephew’s studies, but he had nothing to add.

One woman suddenly announced she was going to reread all of John LeCarre’s books. I asked which of them was her favorite. Her face went blank. She knew The Spy Who came in  from the Cold, but couldn’t remember any of the titles of the rest. After that, we had to listen to an endless discussion about  whether or not it was good to use boiling water as opposed to warm water when you make tea.  The decision was that boiling water acts to make the tea bitter so it’s better to use warm.

All of this was tittle-tattle. Such speakers don’t edit. They cannot determine the important from the subordinate, and they lack balance and taste. Nor so they have the talent to expand on their topics.

These people there were honest, good natured, hard-working, but intellectually toothless.  No one learned anything from what was said; no one was stimulated or excited or made eager to learn more. The speakers were all satisfied with doing the dead-man’s float.

That’s our society today. Being with such people is intolerable because they are so boring. There was no continuous narrative, no interesting sequence of events or unexpected knowledge. There was no direction, no follow through, any point to it all. There is no much to learn about – think of the Roman Empire, or the Greeks or the Renaissance or the Romantics, but learning about them requires a lot of reading and study.  Not only do we have to read, we must remember what we’ve read, reread it, memorize it, or otherwise, reading is simply a diversion, a waste of time.

Yet these days I go to social occasions with a sense of dread. Why do people get together except for the purpose of exchanging perceptions, concepts, history, abstractions, great works of thought and art, and other unchanging knowledge? Of course, there is always the warmth of the huddled herd, but I want to learn things from listening to a group. I don’t want to parade or flourish or grandstand or dominate.  I simply want to listen in order to learn about things I don’t know in an effort to educate myself. I want to hear of people’s risks and adventures and their triumphant struggles as they share their lives.

Andover the holiday weekend, I had a reprieve. My wife went to a place after Christmas, only to find that the hosts were playing some sort of board game that consisted of ramming a piece of wood into other pierces of wood.  It was very noisy, and my heart sank the minute I went in and sat down.

But as I was sitting there  another man and his wife came in.  She worked in Moscow for the State Department’s Bureau if Intelligence and Research.  She knew her facts, and I suspected she worked for the CIA. Her husband was a former Foreign Service officer involved in arms control plus he had done a tour of duty in Pakistan. One host came in to try and urge us to play the board game, but the woman and her husband demurred. Instead, we talked about President Reagan’s build up of U.S. Navy shipping (in all its hyperbole,) the dire Soviet-U.S. tensions including the Soviet’s burning their documents in their London residence because they feared that war was imminent in 1982. (I think.)  We discussed the Jerry Whitworth case, in which Whitworth, for money, provided intimate details of the movements of our attack submarines and the panic that this had caused in the U.S. intelligence community.  We went for two hours.  Every time the host interrupted, the husband would put up his hand, demurring, explaining that we were having a conversation.

What a wonderful stimulating, splendid evening!

But the dismal truth is that very few people can carry on a conversation.

A good conversation is a chance to share knowledge of life, of predicaments, crises, and interesting books and events.  It stimulates, it doesn’t deaden.  It welcomes and broadens, it doesn’t narrow. We old timers have had a lot happen to us, and its fun to share stories and episodes with others who have also led a rich life.  But more and more we never run into people ho have been shot at, wounded, been bitter combat, jumped out of an airplane multiple times, endured death threats and other incidents that make life interesting. Pat has lived through a vast array of hazards, and in many cases barely escaped with his skin. But in any case, one talks not to boast or out-point someone else, but to have the pleasure of sharing memories of past experience. We look for people who are “many-sided” because we can still learn a lot from them.

But what audience today can bear to listen to anything but a chance remark? Every group I attend is very impatient with its members.  I never begin any story that is longer than a brief paragraph. If I do, I instantly detect skepticism for anything longer, so I stay silent.

Such is life.

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54 Responses to “Sterile Chit-Chat” by Richard Sale

  1. Willybilly says:

    Fully concur and have often had a very similar feeling, and still do

  2. Haralambos says:

    Thank you yet once more Mr Sale for this thought-provoking piece. I face this more frequently than I would wish. I attribute this to these factors. I am old (68), my “education” (63 years in one type classroom situation or another, and my style, the legacy of a heavy dose of academic philosophy. I speak slowly in both English and Greek (my second language learned in my 30s).
    Aside from my conversational quirks, I attribute this to two factors. The first was mentioned in the 80s regarding the computer term ROM as it was applied to humans for whom one could not get any information or idea into their thought process. The second I have attributed to Emerson and his thought in regard to “provocation” in the sense of “provocation to think” not aggression, although I admit I have poked a few wasps’ nests in my days.
    Please keep up the provocation and attempts at conversation.

  3. Walker says:

    Richard, I feel your pain.
    It could be, though, that you have a rather high bar for conversationalists.
    This post reminds me of a story about a Tibetan lama resident in the US who was asked who he would like included in a dinner party. He said “Someone with a sense of humor”. Like who? “Well, someone like Khyentse Rinpoche“. Sadly, this criterion was not met.
    Carrying on in the Tibetan theme, an excellent book about conversation is the just published The Lost Art of Good Conversation by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. It has some excellent tips for situations such as the one you described.

  4. rexl says:

    A good laugh, very true.

  5. Cortes says:

    Thanks for that, Richard.
    Isn’t it odd that the truth of the proverb…
    ends up in people becoming more polished, or polite? Able to sustain a conversation neither as a nodding donkey nor as overbearing windbag but with contributions where appropriate. And often, in presence of great conversationalists, silence is the way to contribute to the flow.

  6. Martin Oline says:

    Thank you Richard. Your topic helps me to realize why I love my one-day-a-week job, working in a used book store (I’m retired). I feel fortunate that the occasional opportunity comes my way to learn something new or be enlightened by someone else’s life experiences or general knowledge. Good conversations can make life worthwhile, perhaps because the work I did during my career was seldom stimulating or refreshing.

  7. Le Renard Subtil says:

    I don’t believe the problem lies totally in a lack of intellect. I think many folks, while they may have stimulating thoughts on a range of substantive issues, they cannot get past ingrained social anxieties or personality traits in order to have a meaningful conversation with others.
    Also, conversation is a skill to be learned for many people and if one hasn’t been taught or has not honed these skills to a certain degree, holiday chat can become a dead end. Assuming the other guy is dim is a mistake.

  8. Well, that’s a bummer.

  9. All you missed was the feeling of dread that someone was going to mention politics.

  10. Ishmael Zechariah says:

    Richard Sale,
    re: “A good conversation is a chance to share knowledge of life, of predicaments, crises, and interesting books and events. It stimulates, it doesn’t deaden. It welcomes and broadens, it doesn’t narrow. We old timers have had a lot happen to us, and its fun to share stories and episodes with others who have also led a rich life.
    An apt description of the conversations on SST.
    Thank you.
    Ishmael Zechariah

  11. Oilman2 says:

    I have found that trying to converse with people who have never left this country is part of the problem. They are disbelieving of anything not part of the official narrative as seen in the news, and cannot set aside their preconceived notions based on the same.
    I tried to relate a story from a Malaysia trip, tossing in as a detail that one eats with their fingers in most places away from direct western influence. This quite literally caused several people to shake their heads and withdraw. After, my wife told me that a few wives said that I was ‘certainly colorful’, but no silverware in this day and age was just ‘a bit much to believe’. Her opinion is that if it isn’t something that has been shown on television, then it does not exist or is implausible to many people. Appalling to say the least…
    It is also verboten to discuss most anything related to Christianity or Islam, and it appears to me this is because Christianity and Islam are actually considered to BE a religion, rather than a group of religious beliefs.
    The dearth of knowledge in history, literature, science and other cultures makes little of common interest for me in many venues. I do not watch professional sports, as I had enough, playing in high school and college. It seems that is the sole common point available for many men. Politics is also verboten, as it immediately devolves into the old red/blue divide, regardless of their voting in virtual lockstep – one quickly discovers that most people have no idea how their elected vote to begin with.
    For me, I go to these parties, but no longer do I remain if there is no mutually rewarding conversation available. If the wife wants to stay, then Uber for me if it is simply dull and repetitive or empty in the conversation department.
    Oilfield get-togethers seem to be the most rewarding, as the people are traveled or expats, often ex-military as well. I have also had issue with the younger generation lacking the ability to converse; instead they fling verbal thought-stoppers and blandish slogans and talking points, with no room for any variance whatsoever.
    Perhaps part of the problem is that entire parts of the country or particular groups have become so inward looking that they live in an echo chamber? Or that people cannot have a dissenting opinion without others taking offense? Most certainly, a large part of it is that people seem to think that someone should “win” the conversation here in America.
    Whatever the cause, I agree that both decent conversation and civil discussion are becoming very difficult to find in many places.

  12. Jim Buck says:

    An age-old ‘plaint:
    Now is the winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this son of York;
    And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
    In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
    Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
    Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
    Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
    Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
    Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
    And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds
    To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
    He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
    To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
    But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
    Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
    I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty
    To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
    I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
    Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
    Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
    Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
    And that so lamely and unfashionable
    That dogs bark at me as I halt by them–
    Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
    Have no delight to pass away the time,
    Unless to see my shadow in the sun
    And descant on mine own deformity.
    And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
    To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
    I am determinèd to prove a villain
    And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
    Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
    By drunk prophecies, libels, and dreams,
    To set my brother Clarence and the king
    In deadly hate the one against the other;
    And if King Edward be as true and just
    As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
    This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
    About a prophecy which says that “G”
    Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
    Dive, thoughts, down to my soul — here Clarence comes!
    Read more at http://www.monologuearchive.com/s/shakespeare_046.html#qk90E2ctig08IQWP.99

  13. Peter AU says:

    I rarely go out to ‘social functions’. Conversation is as you describe. Mind numbing.
    Since MH17, I have only been interested in world affairs.
    Went to the Fink desert race a few years with a mate that raced there. He busted himself one year, fractured vertebra, broken ribs and stuff. Was going to fly back later. Met another wounded who only had a few broken ribs and punctured lung. Wasn’t allowed to fly with the lung, so I did an ambulance run to run him home, not far from where I am. Not much to talk about at the start, but then we got onto the stuff that is tossed around here at SST and a few other blogs and we talked constantly for the rest of the 27 hr trip.
    I am far from being an academic, but it is rare I run onto someone that takes an interest in something other than TV, the small world around them, or their neighbors – Gossip.

  14. A. Pols says:

    Doncha love the tangential interjections while trying to converse?
    “the husband would put up his hand, demurring”
    Good on him! So many times kibitzers spoil a good exchange.

  15. turcopolier says:

    I have found that if the others in a social group are sufficiently ignorant of the world, conversation is impossible for the reasons you mention, and so have come to avoid people generally. pl

  16. richard sale says:

    I am not a snob and am not in the least smug. II spend my days reading authors or thinkers who are more intelligent than I ever hope to be.That makes you modest not smug.
    I try to furher knowledge in my dealings. I have too many shortcomings to feel self-satisfied.
    Are you happy with the way you are?

  17. Davis says:

    There is that joke:
    “What do you call someone who speaks two languages?”
    I presume everyone here knows the punchline.

  18. DianaLC says:

    Thank you! A literary response. I’m sitting here with my 1,000 plus library, mostly of literature since I am an English major with an MA from an excellent school. I started a PhD. program but quit when I was made to feel out of date because all they wanted was for me to pick an ideology–feminism, Marxism, post modern deconstruction, etc., from which I would judge what we would be reading. There was no patience for seeing a piece of literature from the perspective of the author’s time or personal history. There was no sympathy for comparing it to literature from previous or later periods to see in it a string of ideas coming down through time.
    I have been out of the country only to attend a wedding in Istanbul and then to do what I had always wanted to do: travel to Greece and stand on the Acropolis, walk around Delphi, and go through the lion gate at Mycenae.
    From the perspective of a person such as I am, with extreme nearsightedness and now suffering from the very rare condition of myopic retinal degeneration, I don’t find actual travel as something I like–especially having to go through modern airports. Travel in the mind through reading has always taken me to many places and times so many other people have no idea about.
    For me to find someone in a modern social gathering who wants to converse at all about anything but mundane problems of traffic, heating costs, finding good day care, etc., is something for which have long ago given up hopw.
    I do find that attending Bible studies at my church of mostly older people does provide stimulating conversation.
    But I have lost hope for anyone younger than my age. They do not read and do not seem interested in anything but acquiring “stuff” and going on expensive vacations at expensive resorts where they are unlikely really to interact with the local population.

  19. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Is it ignorance of the world or simply that they are not interested in ideas , cultures, etc.?
    Like, when you come to work, and people throw away the entire news paper, save the Sports page.

  20. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Richard Sale:
    I think we can agree, on empirical grounds, that most people are not interested in learning.
    It is what it is.
    In regards to “chit-chat”, you might find it interesting that in the religion of Zoroaster, what you described is a sin. The only religion that designates it so.

  21. Tom says:

    Your description of the daughter going on and on reminds me of an smart phone addicted niece of mine. And many other especially young people. I wonder whether smart phone addiction makes you a bore.

  22. Fortunately for me, I am so alienated from most humans that I have no need to attend any social function, so am spared most idiotic conversations and the massive ignorance of most people.
    My only conversations these days is with the black dude across the hall and they consist primarily of our running joke that we “don’t want to hear about it” whatever the other says. That joke has been running for a couple years now.
    This is also why I dropped out of Twitter after 50 thousand posts – too many morons with no intellectual integrity. The latter quality is absent from almost everyone these days and it makes holding any discussion virtually impossible.

  23. Oilman2 says:

    @ DianaLC –
    From where I sit, the number of young people reading something other than headlines, tweets and comic books has become minimal. They are focused on their smartphones, and their view of the world is at least partially through that tiny screen. For many, the tiny screen has replaced much of what passes for a social life. If virtual reality takes hold, it will not surprise me if these same technophiles forego travel for swimming in a virtual world.
    I don’t know where that will lead them, but they have placed themselves in a world where their reality can be freely manipulated by a very few others – which I view as horrendous.
    There are still many that avoid or shake off the smartphone sickness – and while rare in my circles, they are a breath of fresh air. Fortunately, 3 out of my four offspring are in this latter category. The other cannot find her way to the next city without the phone leading her aurally.

  24. A Pols says:

    I don’t know the punchline to that one.
    But I do know the punchline to “What do you call someone who speaks one language?”
    An American…

  25. ISL says:

    Thank you Richard for a pleasant essay.
    I wonder if you are not describing the Sovietization of the US psyche… wherein the safest opinion to express is repeat the conventional wisdom or stick with platitudes. Free speech is not what it once was in our great republic, congress is once again for the sale and bidding of the highest bidder, there is socialism for the wealthy and austerity for the poor.
    Alternatively, it is the Borg-ization of our culture. There was an interesting commentary on the Orville on the pre-occupation of the next generation with “likes” on facebook – I suspect it will further narrow the approved expressable socially acceptable thought.
    If I find myself at similar gatherings, I tend to start up a conversation on the latest medical or science discoveries, as I find almost everyone remains interested in how not to die sooner, no matter how intellectually shallow their curiosity may be.

  26. Barbara Ann says:

    Now that is interesting Babak. Sadly I know little of that most ancient of religions – would you be able to recommend one or more books in order that I may remedy this situation?

  27. John Minnerath says:

    Reference #24
    Smart phones are an abomination. How can you have any sort of conversation with someone when they are absorbed by that electronic monster in their hand?
    Even a brother of mine, who built a fantastic home by hand and lived completely off the grid for years finally had power brought in, at a considerable expense, and now raves about smart phones being the greatest technological advance of the century.
    That’s our century, since he’s somewhat younger than me, but was still born not long after WWII.

  28. SmoothieX12 says:

    I totally understand where the author comes from, and I mean totally. But I, personally, while sharing the sentiment somewhat, would rather live among down to earth simple but good-natured, decent people than socialize with highly sophisticated a-holes, probability of encountering which grows with the number (and “quality”) of degrees they have. Sometimes complexity of the thought process easily transforms into sophisticated excuses for being a jerk. This is not to say that there are no a-holes among rednecks, quite a few, actually. But I love also:”the warmth of the huddled herd”. This is very important part of our life.

  29. Walker says:

    Not me.

  30. Jack says:

    I hear you and sympathize.
    Since retiring we returned to our family ranch. Now my circle are other farmers, vets, winemakers, distillers, brewers, cheesemakers, and a motley crew of other retirees including artists, writers and executives who have “escaped” to wine country. Our conversations are about composting, crop rotation, pruning techniques, permaculture, fermenting and other assorted topics. I find them very interesting as I always learn something useful. I also have another circle who I hang out with at our local watering holes. They are mostly Deplorables, who I find refreshing as they have a lot of common sense and an unpretentious attitude. The next generation who I worked with in my professional life write and call me regularly with “Jack, did you know…”. They keep me abreast on the world of finance. What I no longer have the time for are the sophistry of the so-called elites. The common political thread I hear among those I interact with regularly in our small community is a desire for a smaller government that spends less and interferes less in our lives.
    When I need the intellectual stimulation and analysis of world affairs I come to SST. At this late stage of my life, I am grateful for the land and the beauty of America, warts and all. I am hopeful that my grandchildren and their children will guide America to its new place in the world. I know my generation let down our forefathers.

  31. “I think we can agree, on empirical grounds, that most people are not interested in learning.”
    Yeah. Learning makes you uncomfortable and who wants to be that?

  32. Linda says:

    I don’t attend many social gatherings and don’t have a spouse to share afterthoughts with, but I am lucky to live in an area where there are lots of interesting people of many backgrounds with whom I share many delightful conversations. I love having friends of all ages and have easily been spared the company of those who spend their time buried in their cell phones. I too think that travel outside the US is more important for Americans than others since we can go thru life that is very narrow unlike almost all other countries where a broader prospective is pretty necessary. This is not to say that I have no experience with the sort of gatherings you talk about, but I manage to find many occasions for interesting conversation.

  33. wtofd says:

    Or an Englishman. Or French. Or Italian. Or…

  34. elaine says:

    The most interesting conversation I can recall about Zoroastrianism
    was with an older oriental rug dealer. I asked him to tell me about the
    carpets that had an abundance of pink in the threads.
    And then there have been conversations by guests from various parts of Persia &/or Afghanistan that seemed amused that I enjoy keeping a live flame burning in the house unless it’s very hot outside…something about the flame gets them going on about Zoroastrianism & the pre-Islamic world.
    So called conversations with many Americans unfortunately start off with
    mini interrogations like, “What do you do?”, trying to catch the exact spelling of my name to google me, etc…total turn-offs. I’m very sympathetic to many of the comments on this thread…then there’s p.c.
    the true killer of many interesting conversations. I can’t recall an
    interesting dinner conversation in over 20 years, perhaps longer. The best exchanges at social events are usually outside where a few smokers congregate until the anti-smokers show up to cough & bring it all to an end.

  35. Virginia Slim says:

    “One seeks a midwife for his thoughts; another, someone to whom he can be a midwife. Thus originates a good conversation.”

  36. Babak Makkinejad says:

    “They keep me dear in the Mage House,
    For the everlasting Fire burns in our Heart”
    – Hafiz

  37. LeaNder says:

    Your description of the daughter going on and on reminds me of an smart phone addicted niece of mine.
    I was a bit puzzled by the setting admittedly. I get it that the daughter seems to be excited, talks and talks. But what caused the delay to start with? Supposing the “small party” is a couple with their kids, one daughter absent, plus Richard and his wife. Were father and son present before the arrival? Was there no chance to talk to father and son? Shift the conversation to give either one a chance?
    Remember, as a member of the group, I did not want to stir up conflict; I only wanted to stir up interest.
    So, one daughter is absent, does she miss her? Will she miss her brother next year. Will she visit him in Croatia?
    Some people talk a lot, not since they have to always take center stage, but since they try to hide a basic insecurity in whatever context.
    I wondered about that, admittedly:
    In any case, everyone was glassy-eyed when the daughter finished.
    And then it was time to leave?

  38. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    Davis @ #18
    No not everyone here knows the punchline. Or is that in itself the joke?

  39. Down_in_Front says:

    Bruce Cockburn (Canadian musician/songwriter) has a line, ‘The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.’

  40. Procopius says:

    I am socially inept, so I do not understand the picture presented. Was this a party, or a lecture? Or a twelve-step group meeting? When I have gone to people’s homes there was not one person speaking while all others sat silently and listened. There were multiple conversations going on in different parts of the room, or different rooms of the house. If Mr. Sale wanted to ask the young man about his experiences so far with the State Department, why didn’t he just go talk to him? I’m a member of a twelve-step group, and I know the format there is for everybody to sit quietly until the current speaker is done, but before and after the meeting there are usually several separate conversations outside the meeting place. I don’t get it (I also didn’t go below the fold, the first part of the story was too unsettling).

  41. richard sale says:

    You know nothing about me yet you label me as smug. I admire your certainty.
    Richard Sale

  42. Mr Sale,
    Spot on, more’s the pity, though things do get livelier when one meets a fellow deplorable. Just one minor point. I’m worried about this bit:-
    “After that, we had to listen to an endless discussion about whether or not it was good to use boiling water as opposed to warm water when you make tea. The decision was that boiling water acts to make the tea bitter so it’s better to use warm.”
    I’d like to have been there. I might have swung the meeting in favour of orthodoxy. Sounds as if you have some friends who need help. Lots of help. Water off the boil, as I remind my German pals now and again, is barbaric. (Not all my German pals. There are some of the true faith over there.) Mind you, I read that way back some Americans attempted to make tea with cold salt water. Caused quite a lot of fuss and must have tasted awful. Glad to hear you’ve at least graduated to warm tap water.
    So in fact that conversation could have opened up into a most interesting discussion on whether those rascals in Boston were freedom fighters or just worried about defending market share. And on to how those fifty aristocrats in a barn came up with a Constitution that at present seems (in spite of my fiercely insular prejudices) as if it might deliver more promising results than ours.
    Yes, I’d like to have been there. Nihil humani a me alienum puto, even tea. Especially tea, really, if you have countrymen who deviate so far from the paths of righteousness as to embrace the heresy of warm water.

  43. LeaNder says:

    English Outsider:
    Concerning tea and water temperature. Seems with green tea (supposedly more healthy) there is this issue/discussion if the water should not be quite at boiling temperature. Admittedly in GB I may have not been too close enough to the P.O.S.H. society to see or witness the better tea culture. What’s your approach to tea? The teabag?
    Anyway: I am a bit impatient, beyond not really having a thermometer around. Thus yes, I don’t pay attention.
    The best green tea, I ever had, was a good-buy present from Japanese business visitors taking over a part of the firm I was working for. Ultimately outsourced to China? No more problems with color issues once imported back? Whole leaves. If I would try to get it regularly around here, only checked a place close to here that closed down, it would be so hellishly expensive that I can assure you I would pay attention to the temperature, since the expense for the thermometer would be a minor issue.
    But yes, more generally the Japanese tea ceremony is quite fascinating.

  44. Adrestia says:

    Although there always has been a yearning for a past that is no more, IMO this time alas it is probably true.
    A friend of mine used to say: “The television is on and the brains are off” There is more than a little truth in it. Today we live in a visual age where television, internet, tablets and smart phones are the main information carriers used.
    Visual information is easy and doesn’t cost a lot of energy. Reading is much harder and forces someone to create his own images. IMO this is the best way. It also helps to create a focus and develop your own creativity. It requires an active interaction with the written word. Visual information is passive.
    Visual information is often superficial and not able to transmit or explain complex abstract ideas. For example I have only one example (and alas I don’t remember which one) where the film was better than the book.

  45. LeaNder – teabags? TEABAGS??? And on the Colonel’s site.
    I knew some of your compatriots who travelled to Ceylon and saw what was used for teabags. They reported back. I’m not saying the road outside was swept as well but none of them have used those vile artefacts since.
    However. No consideration has as yet been given to the all-important question of site tea. Thermos or brew-up in situ? Greater minds than ours have addressed the question but it is still unresolved. The very greatest minds I remember seeing in action once. It made an indelible impression. I came on site early just as the men were setting up. It was a small job, lasting only a week or so. A neighbour poked her head out of the window to see what was going on. To be greeted by a cheery summons “Bacon sandwich and tea around eleven, luv.” And there was. Every day, apparently, and for the entire team. Did they know the lady in question, I enquired later. Never met her before, they said, won’t meet her again, but she got the bacon just right. Makes you feel humble, doesn’t it, to think of that level of virtuosity.
    Back to life as we ordinary mortals know it. Assam Royale makes a tolerable brew over your way. It needs time. Give it lots. The Frisians are of course our first cousins in this as in so many other things and make tea impeccably. Give Ostfriesen Teemischung a whirl. If in England a good solid tea is Yorkshire Red Label. It’s one of the few English everyday teas that the accountants haven’t reduced the quality of in the hope we won’t notice.
    That tapping noise, by the way, is Mr Sale’s foot. We’d better leave the question of milk first or not, and I think we’d better skip the question of the correct preparation of Green Tea altogether. Pity. So little said, so much to say. Another thing Mr Rhodes got right – I think I remember this quote accurately as well – was that when it comes to making tea the English have won first prize in the lottery of life. Don’t be jealous. When it comes to coffee the first prize is undoubtedly yours.
    One of our own neocons. I go with the Mark Twain quote at the bottom.

  46. LeaNder says:

    thanks EO. Love it when “luv” surfaces somewhere. Feels a bit home. 🙂

  47. LeaNder says:

    Visual information is easy and doesn’t cost a lot of energy. Reading is much harder and forces someone to create his own images.
    I somewhat disagree, Adrestia. Visual information is much more complex then text. But yes, I come from the arts in this context … How do you read and interpret visual non-verbal signals around you in everyday life? To what extend may sound and vision (…) matter in a soldiers life, acknowledging a share of SST members here?
    More randomly, do you reflect on how your brain deals with a photo heading or accompanying the article you are reading the same way you may or may not question the headline or more generally the news header’s special (most important?) news value selections?
    A friend of mine used to say: “The television is on and the brains are off”
    Do you recall the context/central theme of the exchange? Was s/he referring to news? Entertainment and/as news or film? Straight forward news reporting have a standard set of stereotypical images underlying the reports. …

  48. turcopolier says:

    “To what extend may sound and vision (…) matter in a soldiers life, acknowledging a share of SST members here?” I suppose this is a re-statement of your basic belief tat soldiers are rather limited people. pl

  49. LeaNder says:

    I suppose this is a re-statement of your basic belief tat soldiers are rather limited people. pl
    quite the opposite, Pat. But they surely have to deal with a lot more extreme situations then the average citizen. … If they want to survive that is.
    I am not aware Ì ever suggested that soldiers are ‘limited people’.
    Seriously, would I have wasted that much time here? I am a bit envious of the experience, that I have to admit. … But then?

  50. Adrestia says:

    I’m not saying that visual information is not important, but compared with reading it is more difficult or even impossible to communicate abstract ideas. When you look at European history you see an explosion of ideas, (geopolitical) changes after the discovery (or modifying the Chinese) of printing. Before that time duplication of explicit knowledge (books) was very expensive and had to be done by specialized, educated people in dresses, called monks. This in combination with the increased literacy of common people (because of protestantism and growth of cities)
    Vision is very important for humans but is not very suited for information transfer. Look at this list of biases:
    How do you avoid these in a visual representation? With text you are able to do this using structuring, footnotes or other tools. Visual information is great as a means to access or categorize (loads of) information.
    Television (or youtube) is essentially a one-way communication with a sender and a receiver. Interaction is not possible. When using webcam or skype it is oral communication.
    Knowledge gathering is a cyclical process which always involves 4 steps, which are always necessary.
    1. Internalization (eg reading or viewing)
    2. Socializing (eg talking, communicating with other people. Like we do on SST)
    3. Combining. Integrating 1+2 to actively do something with this.
    4. Externalizing (eg writing down, creating something, talking about etc) This also helps with pushing information through the straw between short-term memory in long-term memory (remember that almost 99% of everything we see,do, sensory information etc is filtered away with our brain)
    Skipping steps (usually 4) with people, but especially in organizations has a dramatic influence on knowledge creation. Especially when you take into account that both humans and organizations have a tendency to become more rigid (in thinking processes) when they age.
    In our society the trend is that people are not getting smarter but getting dumber unfortunately. This applies to all society, from the elite to the working classes. If you only socialize with people with a similar background you never get new insights and keep making the same (sort of) mistakes.
    IMO this is caused by the visualization of information transfer which creates a ‘lazyness in the brain’ of people.

  51. Adrestia says:

    Too bad there is no edit button (for half an hour)
    The essence of what I’m trying to say is that reading is an active form and viewing of moving visual information is usually passive.
    When reading something you can create the pace. Stop, reread, think about something.
    With visual information the pace is created by the creator.
    Also visual information (such as blinking text or ads on internet) force us to watch. Evolutionary this makes sense, as movement may be caused by something dangerous. The same applies to having a bit of paranoia (is that dark spot just shade or a leopard?)
    Its just not very suited as primary medium for information transfer or knowledge creation.

  52. LeaNder says:

    yes, Adrestia, if there was, I might have corrected good-bye-present. Don’t worry.
    Here goes anyway, I cut a longer feedback … But, thanks for the response, Adrestia.
    If you ever watch me stepping into one of the listed cognitive bias traps feel free to let me know. I’d be pleased. Although quite old, I am always willing to learn. 😉
    Full discovery, in this specific context I only babbled since I admittedly felt some type of basic sympathy* for james/James no doubt impolite Pavlovian response.
    Attentional bias? No doubt, I am human, I am female, and I am a German outsider in a largely American context around here. I also have a niece.
    * … full discovery, I didn’t go back and reread Richard’s article. Check what left me with the feeling there was a (unintended?) secondary theme apart from the given one? Small talk. Not that James responded to mine. He seemed to respond to a different unintended one? Many though seemed pleased with the one that caught my attention.
    And I can assure that conversations about make-up or politics tended to bore me to tears from a quite early age on.

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