Can We Talk?

Can we talk? Seriously. I am asking you a question. Can we talk?

I don’t mean whether you and I can exchange texts or emails or (for God’s sakes) tweets. I don’t even mean whether I can write this column you are now reading.

No, I really want to know if we can talk. Can we sit across from each other over coffee or lunch and swap stories or ask questions of one another and actually listen to one another?

We lawyers probably talk more than any other group of folks in America. We actually talk for a living.

My favorite comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, once said he read a public opinion survey in which most Americans said their greatest fear was speaking in public. Their second greatest fear was dying. “What this means,” explained Jerry, “is that at a funeral most people would rather be the corpse than the person delivering the eulogy.”

But most of us lawyers aren’t afraid to talk. We talk to judges and juries, and most of all, we talk to other lawyers.

And good lawyers don’t just talk, they listen. Good lawyers are naturally curious people, and they want to know what other people think and know, even if they then try to prove those people are wrong!

Those of us who are trial lawyers also know that there are two sides to every story. We may think our side is right and the other is wrong, but we recognize that no matter how thin you slice a sandwich, there’s going to be two sides.

But back to my question. Can we talk?

I truly believe that the art of conversation is dying in our great country, and the loss of conservation and civility is the reason we have become a dysfunctional divided nation.

Don’t get me wrong, we Americans do a lot of talking at each other. We have a president who sends out tweets at 3:00 in the morning in which he never asks any questions or expresses any self-doubt. He just pontificates in 140 characters or less.

His political opponents may do less tweeting, but they also engage in non-conversational talk. In her ill-fated presidential campaign last fall, Secretary Hillary Clinton dismissed millions of supporters of President Trump as “deplorables.” That’s not just bad politics. It’s a sure-fire way to end a conversation that never even started.

I learned the art of conversation from my parents and grandparents. Those conversations took place at two wonderful venues: family dinners and the front porch.

I enjoyed a family dinner with my mother and father almost every night of my childhood. I took such dinners for granted. I thought everybody was like the Haltom family or Ward and June Cleaver and Wally and the Beav on TV. We sat down at either the kitchen table or the dining room table every night, said grace in thanksgiving for our meal, and then talked to each other as we ate fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Mom would ask my father how his day had gone, and Dad would ask me what, if anything, I had learned in school that day.

Except during the Cuban missile crisis, we rarely discussed politics. We mostly told stories and laughed together, and we listened to each other. We listened because we cared about each other and loved each other.

We were a family, and families had dinners together at night and had conversations.

And then there was my grandparents’ front porch. I spent many a summer night on the front porch sitting on a swing helping my grandmother shell butter beans while listening to my grandparents and their neighbors talk as the crickets chirped and the lightning bugs flashed.

I can tell you there is nothing that promotes a conversation better than a platter full of unshelled butter beans accompanied by a chorus of crickets. I can’t explain it, but when you start shelling butter beans, you talk with folks and listen to them.

The late, great Eudora Welty said that her beginnings as a writer occurred on the front porch of her family home. She became a great story teller because she remembered all the stories she heard from her family as a child on her front porch in Mississippi.

But I’m afraid that family dinners are going the way of the dinosaur. And with the advent of air conditioning and other indoor amenities such as big screen HDTVs and iPhones, we are no longer gathering on the front porch. I confess I can’t remember the last time my family and I sat together on our front porch, although we do gather on our patio for cookouts on summer nights.

And so I say it’s time for us lawyers to take the lead. We are the masters of the art of conversation, and we need to be role models in bringing it back.

I am willing to discuss this topic with you at any time. But until we meet, here are five suggestions:

  1. Let’s put our phones in our pockets. Let’s face it, we are not going to turn them off. They have become a business necessity in the legal professional. But we shouldn’t be holding them in our hands and looking at them 24/7 365 days a year. Let’s put them in our pockets and pull them out only to answer or make an occasional phone call.
  2. Let’s quit working through the lunch hour. Unless a statute of limitations is about to run on you, leave your office at noon and spend an hour breaking bread and talking with a fellow lawyer, co-worker or friend.
  3. Go home at night for dinner with your family, in whatever form your family happens to be. It may be a traditional family of you, your spouse, and kids. If you’re like me, and your nest is empty, it may be just you and your spouse. It may be just you and your significant other. And in some cases, it may be you and your pet. Trust me, you can have a conversation with your dog. Dogs are wonderful listeners, and I have had conversations with my beagles, Atticus and Scout Haltom, on many evenings over the years.
  4. Host a dinner party and invite as your guests friends who hold different political and social views than you. And if you have no such friends, please get some quickly. Believe me, if your only two sources of news are MSNBC and The New York Times, you need to have dinner with a friend whose only two sources of news are Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. And they need to have dinner with you.
    And here’s an idea for a wonderful game you can play at your dinner party. Ask each of your guests to take turns expressing a point of view different from their own. If they voted for President Trump in the last election, ask them to take thirty seconds and say why they understand why people voted for Hillary Clinton. And vice versa. If all the guests agree they will not revert to sarcasm in their remarks, it can be a delightful source of conversation. And it may surprise you to learn in such conversations that you and your friends have some common values.
  5. Stop and take a few moments each day to engage in conversations. It may be by the coffee pot at work in the morning. It may occur when you see a fellow lawyer in the courthouse. It may occur when you are taking a walk through your neighborhood and encounter a neighbor you haven’t seen in a while given the fact that no one sits on their front porch anymore.

And when you have such conversations, its okay for you to take your phone out of your pocket to show the other person pictures of your family members or your recent vacation, so long as the other person gets to pull out their phone and show you their own pictures.

In short, let’s bring back the lost art of conversation. Let’s talk. Let’s listen, and let’s enjoy each other’s company.

After all, conversation is the way we experience love and life.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.

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