Talking while you eat is good.

One of the latest media fuelled laments in US, UK and European magazines and newspapers has been the “loss of the family meal”. There are some reports presented from research that suggest that less than half of US based families have more than three meals together around a table. In the UK a three year old survey maintains, that only one fifth of UK families typically will eat a meal together more than once a year, more often than not on Christmas Day.

Way back in the olden days, dinner was seldom a traditional event for families. A separate dining room was only for the very rich and for affluent merchants. Generally mealtimes were unceremonious affairs. Often only the hardworking men sat down to fill up after a days worth of exertions. It was only sometime during the early Victorian era in Britain and the mid 1800’s — a period often characterised as a long period of peace and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, — that today’s middle class day-to-day customs became the norm and a dining room became a status symbol. Back then at the age of 8 or 9 children were allowed sit with the adults at the table for tutoring in respectable etiquette – listening, and generally being seen but not heard. By the 1900s, restaurants sprang into existence to supply an “eating out” experience for white collar workers. Soon afterward, and later  the 1950s dining out became a much sought after social affair, while back at home, in the Sage household, and in millions of homes around the world the family meal became a daily ritual; Mother cooked, Father carved, the boys cleared, and the girls washed and cleaned up afterwards.

Over the past 30 or so years many cultural, socio-economic and industrial influences have conspired to rip this happy-together family unit image apart. Sit-together family meals have declined dramatically. Commuting dual income working parents, children juggling sports practices, homework and hanging out have made it difficult to find time for everyone to sit around the table in the evenings. Sitting together, enjoying the same meal and chatting, is in many cases treated as an old-fashioned extravagance by many who have what are -to them –  “more important things to do” and that time spent in eating and relaxing together is time wasted. Somehow something precious is being lost; however when asked, most people are still declaring that there is no substitute for the emotional pleasure everyone receives from the vanishing Sunday roast, with the whole family together. The turn of the Millennium marked a time where family meals have become discretionary. Many children and families are reduced to eating alone and “refuelling”. The ceremony of cooking and eating together has gotten to the point where a generation has emerged that is incapable of making something as simple as a sandwich or a cup of tea or coffee. (Difficult for me to believe until I discussed this article with some work experience graduates).

The family dinner table is a wonderful place of learning, full of precious opportunities to learn and practice valuable social skills. The business relationships world revolves around lunches and dinners, so what better place to start than the dinner table. Youngsters who “lunch and learn” have the opportunity to discover and practice all kinds of social skills, from how to make a strong point politely, to the best way to get Mum and/or Dad to say “yes” to them. Most parents don’t necessarily talk about the mechanics of manners, small talk and social graces at the meal table anymore but they do provide a lively, real and safe learning opportunity.

Does this social environment need help to re-invent itself or is this simply an obsolete social “fad” whose time has expired? Will the new generation of children enter adulthood knowing less about how to hold a simple social conversation than did their own parents? Last year during one of my seminars, I asked for a show of hands from any of the attendees who wished they would like to be more skilled in the art of small talk. The result – every hand went up. Now, if successful senior business execs wish for more social skills how is the next generation of new adults going to cope when they have no environment to learn in?

The technology available to humanity today is advancing in an unprecedented pace, there are new discoveries being announced every day, quantum physics will soon reveal dimensions of reality that will overwhelm even the most hardened technophile. So why are our present social and communication skills getting worse than previous generations? Think about it, 20 years ago very few had mobile phones or personal computers. Today there are more active mobile phones in the UK than people. Mobile text messaging is a substitute for a chat. Few graduates are able to hold a discussion with a stranger for more than 90 seconds before running out of things to talk about. So what do the “older generation” do, that make them so much more erudite and comfortable with their social skills.

The answer to this enigma is interesting, glance at a page of anything written by Lord Palmerston, Friedrich von Schiller, Fritz Perls, William Pitt or Thomas Jefferson – or even, take a moment and browse at a sampling of the letters written by civil war or WW1 soldiers. Back then people wrote fluently and with such a noticeable straightforwardness that in comparison, many people today sound like uneducated bumbling morons or half-wits. Our younger generation together with all the “communication” and technology advancements will readily admit that they are way clumsier in their social skills than their predecessors.

So, back to my point.

I am concerned that writing meaningful letters and notes to one another and modern social skills and communication skills are actually growing worse as we “advance”.

Let us presuppose the following. When we talk to our children, and their friends we are in effect teaching them and accordingly to be teaching we have to be talking. Discussing what’s right and wrong, is a lesson in principles. Discuss or debate fast food and you effectively explain nutrition. Chat about how to ask a girl or guy to a party, and you have a lesson in social skills. On the whole any discussion is a lesson in social skills, since the way you talk and what you talk about is a social affair.

Few people talk much anymore Not long ago farmers, market people, merchants and bankers worked together with their family and children for the better part of the day, and they talked, at home later they often sat and discussed the gossip, weather and politics. In our household chatting at the table or over a barbeque or campfire was a rite of passage. People were always talking. Everyone learned by watching and doing because the family met and talked for hours on end.

Today far fewer people sit next to each other and have a meal or play games as often as was done not 30 years ago. We seldom work side-by-side for years on end – today we receive e-mail from someone who sits behind us for 9 hours a day. (perhaps email documents keep us accountable)

My generation also learned a lot about negotiations, arguing, and small talk by playing games with each other. Many people today withdraw into the safety of electronic games. (So they can be safe indoors and not feel insecure about meeting “strangers” to go along and have real live fun with)

We also used to chat over a punch bowl and we slow danced to the Moody Blues. Today clubs and are so overwhelmingly loud with deep bass beats that talking becomes impractical.

Many families nowadays who do gather for a Sunday lunch will recognise the following. Grownups gather around with the ladies chatting about day-to-day things and holidays the men discuss sport finance and cars, teenagers slip away into a parallel universe of game-consoles where they enter a state of deep trance, absorbed (sucked in) by interactive games, and the little kids gather together with the third TV and watch cartoons. (Anytime kids want to ask Mum or Dad something, they are let down by the “I’m busy” signal)

By now you might think that the world is doomed and we are all in big trouble. Nope, millions still have the means to constantly connect friends, teenagers, kids, in-laws and family, and have warm and cosy conversations. In my house, we turn off the TV at mealtimes, we discuss everything and anything, and no subject is taboo. We discuss food, sex and music, news, politics, sport, money, people and we all laugh and shout and learn.

However, competing and winning against the “I’m too busy-stressed-tired . . .” people, or the parallel-electronic-“virtual”-(real?) universe, requires more than simply sitting at the table together. Sometimes it can be a challenge at family gatherings to spend time with the kids – maybe it’s an “anti ‘something’ thing”. I now simply plan time with them where I don’t have to compete with their peers, or girlfriends or other universes. My grown children still love to gather at our home and play at tossing a ball around and chat about absolutely anything that’s happening in their lives. Now that they are in higher education it is a quest to see if they could beat their old man. Now that they are big and grown up, tripping me up isn’t as challenging as it was when they were younger, but they still like to gather and play and talk.

My conclusion; when we casually chat together we constantly learn new things and discover things we were never previously aware of, we enjoy each other’s company, we pass on our family values, – and in the middle of all of it all , we’ll practise and perfect our social skills. Go on change your life, change your world, make your family happy, and make the world a fun place to be in, be fun to be with – Go talk to someone.


Talk is good, more talk is better.

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