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Crowded conversations

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Joined: 17 Mar 2009
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Location: Liverpool, NY

PostPosted: Sun Jan 31, 2010 11:58 pm    Post subject: Crowded conversations Reply with quote

From time to time a thought pops up that I have to write about. One of the books I enjoyed reading many years ago was by Oliver Wendell Holmes entitled “Conversations at a Breakfast Table”. Actually, it was excerpts from a series of books: “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table”, “The Professor at the Breakfast Table”, and “The Poet at the Breakfast Table”. While in school, Holmes lived in a boarding house and apparently had many philosophical discussions with his fellow boarders at the breakfast table. He wrote down his thoughts in various essays (many of which are considered to be imaginary conversations rather than recollections of real discussions) and published them in magazines like the New England Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly and ultimately in book form.

Holmes loved to analyze conversations. One of my favorite essays involved an analysis of the number of persons in a dialogue. I’ve retold it a number of times after sitting through lengthy crowded and boring meetings. The following is an excerpt from Holmes’ “Autocrat”.

[The Autocrat is speaking.]

“ Talking is one of the fine arts, – the noblest, the most important, and the
most difficult….It is not easy, at the best, for two persons talking together to
make the most of each other’s thoughts, there are so many of them….When
John and Thomas, for instance, are talking together, it is natural enough that
among the six there should be more or less confusion and misapprehension.”

When the Autocrat’s boardinghouse listeners fail to understand his reference to six
interlocutors, the Autocrat explains:

“There are at least six personalities distinctly to be recognized as taking part in
between that dialogue between John and Thomas.

Three Johns.
1. The real John; known only to his Maker.
2. John’s ideal John; never the real one, and
often very unlike him.
3. Thomas’s ideal John; never the real John,
nor John’s John, but often very unlike either.

Three Thomases.
1. The real Thomas.
2. Thomas’s ideal Thomas.
3. John’s ideal Thomas.

Only one of the three Johns is taxed; only one can be weighed on a platform-
balance; but the other two are just as important in the conversation.”

After some additional comments, the Autocrat concludes:

“It follows that, until a man can be found who knows himself as his Maker
knows him, or who sees himself as others see him, there must be at least six
persons engaged in every dialogue between two. Of these, the least
important, philosophically speaking, is the one that we have called the real
person. No wonder two disputants often get angry, when there are six of
them talking and listening all at the same time.”

I never enjoyed meetings. I would say, “Look around and count the number of people. Then multiply by three and you’ll know why it seems so crowded and nothing gets accomplished.” For that very reason, I always limited the number of attendees that I would invite to my meetings.

Now you know why the McLaughlin Report show on PBS always sounds so crowded with 15 people, all talking at once!
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