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Rules of engagement

Most conversation is just idle chatter, so how do we make talking to each other more worthwhile? Ala

Modern society is notably sociable in temper. Hermits have long been out of fashion. When guidebooks wish to praise a city, they point to its number of bars and clubs. We're all meant to know how to keep a conversation flowing. Having no friends is one of the greater remaining taboos.

And yet, despite this deference to the idea of communion, it is striking how bad most of us are at holding a conversation, chiefly because we insist on our belief that knowing how to talk to other people is something we are born knowing how to do, rather than an art dependent on a range of odd and artificially acquired skills.

Most of us rightly accept that improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes and, as a result, the market is flooded with television programmes and books promising to take us through the intricacies of whipping up an aubergine pâté or assembling poached pears. But we show no such caution and modesty when it comes to conversation. We blithely assume that all will go well, so long as the place settings are attractive and the soup warm.

And yet I hope I am not the odd one out in suggesting that the great majority of conversations we have are rather stale - and that it generally remains a mystery how, every now and then, they become more worthwhile; that is, more fun than reading a book or a magazine. Finding oneself in a good conversation is rather like stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night - and then never knowing how to get back there in daytime.

What are some of the reasons conversations go wrong? Shyness has a lot to answer for. We get scared of opening our souls because we falsely exaggerate the difference between ourselves and others. We imagine that others don't share in our vulnerabilities or interests. We display only our strengths - and hence become boring, for it is typically in the revelation of our weaknesses, in our display of our mortality in all its dimensions, that people grow sympathetic. It's almost impossible to be bored when people tell you what they are scared of or who they desire.

Dinner-party shyness is hence one of the most modest and most egocentric of emotions. Modest because it is born out of an acute and touching sense of one's shortcomings and peculiarity; and egocentric because it is based on an exaggeration of how different other people are. Like the paranoid person, the shy one imagines that all eyes in the room are in the end on him or her. The shy person needs to believe how much they have in common with the rest of humanity.

So what can be done to help liberate us?

We need to learn some manners. The suggestion could sound archaic. There is a well-worn tradition of mocking the fancy dinner party.

It is often pointed out that, as people's manners become exquisite, their interactions become ever more stilted. Yet history shows that conversations grow interesting and sincere precisely at the moment when people accept a little artificiality in the proceedings. We need prescriptions and rules to get us to the natural and raw parts of our characters.

Consider the record of the greatest conversation in the western tradition, Plato's Symposium. The evening is as minutely choreographed as a piece of theatre. Eight intellectual Athenians take turns to deliver discourses on the nature of love while eating a banquet (featuring olives and seafood). A close eye is kept on the clock. People are asked to define their terms and avoid unnecessary digressions. There is no mention of the weather. The guests know they have come together to illuminate an intellectual concern and their conversation therefore has a direction. There is a sense of where the talk is going and the hosts are keen to give their guests the greatest of dinner-party gifts: some ideas to take home with them.

It was to the ancient Greeks that the French aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie looked when they began to hold their celebrated salons in 18th-century Paris. Fed up with the idle chatter of the court at Versailles (where the talk centred relentlessly around who had shot what and in which forest), they wanted to make their homes into spiritual successors to Socrates's dining chamber.

One of the greatest bluestockings of the period, Sophie de Condorcet, wrote down a set of rules for a successful evening of conversation. She believed that the guests had to arrive with a number of conversational topics and explore them with the same rigour as a scholar in a library, except that, rather than consulting books, it was the other guests who were to provide the insights. Examples of fitting topics included: what are the duties of children to their parents? What is the wisest way to approach one's own death? Can governments make us good, or only obedient?

The topics may not precisely fit the agenda of early 21st-century men and women, but the logic behind de Condorcet's approach is still valid, namely that we need to plan a little in order to have a good conversation. The academic Theodore Zeldin - who has written extensively on 18th-century France - tried a few years ago to raise the arts of conversation in our own times by launching a series of public meals in Oxford.

Groups of strangers came together and, under Zeldin's gentle but firm direction, agreed to lay aside their inhibitions and explore experiences, ideas, regrets and aspirations. He provided diners with a specially designed conversation menu that he thought would help people get the most from talking to a stranger. It started by getting them to consider questions such as "Which of my ambitions is likely to remain unfulfilled?" or "Is sex overrated?".

The questions certainly sound surprising, even shocking. We would almost never dare to bring up such matters with a stranger. Instead, we would tiptoe delicately around neutral topics from the media, frightened of causing offence, while ignoring that most of us are in the end looking for an exchange of vulnerable material. So afraid are we of sounding odd that we too readily accept boredom. In the process, we condemn an evening to sterility.

We should be more brave. An evening comes alive when we meet people who seem to express our very own thoughts, but with a clarity and psychological accuracy we could not match. They appear to know us better than we know ourselves. What was shy and confused within us is unapologetically and cogently phrased by them, our pleasure at the meeting indicating that we have found a piece of ourselves, a sentence or two built of the very substance of which our own minds are made - a congruence all the more striking if we have only just made their acquaintance.

We feel grateful to these strangers for reminding us of who we are. Our embarrassments, our sulks, our feelings of guilt may be conveyed in a way that affords us with a sense of vivid self-recognition. The dinner-party companion has located words to depict a situation we thought ourselves alone in feeling, and for a few moments we are like two lovers on an early date, thrilled to discover how much they share, and so unable to do much more than graze on the food in front of them.

We should be more demanding of our social lives. Rather than seeing a successful encounter as a rare gift, we should expect to engineer one regularly. The history of conversation suggests that it is when there are heavy-handed rules around that our spirit can best be set free. We may be tempted to giggle at the artificiality of a conversation menu, or the pretentiousness of Sophie de Condorcet's dinner parties - and yet we should welcome them for helping us get to the elusive, spontaneous and sincere bits of ourselves.

Alain de Botton's "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" is published by Penguin (£10.99).

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit