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Learning to talk

by Kamran Nazeer

Learning to talk by Kamran Nazeer Issue 97, April 2004 My parents thought I was autistic,

Issue 97, April 2004

My parents thought I was autistic, but I just couldn't see the point of having a conversation

Kamran Nazeer is a freelance writer

Her office was lined with red carpet. She sat in a chair with a high back. I sat on the floor and drew pictures in the carpet by running my fingers through it. We listened to a tape of two Americans, Tom and Maureen. I had to identify the topics of their conversation. She held up cards. I had to guess what the next word was. Sometimes, I broke off and went back to my pictures.

I shook my head when she challenged me. "I've run out of words," I shrugged.

There was a garden at the apartment block where my family lived and I used to sit on the steps, like a guardian. No one could get in without giving me the password. I had begun to overhear the word "aw-tism" from my parents. They had two books that used it in their titles. "Aw-tism," I decided, was the password needed to enter the garden. Autism, my parents feared, was the word that would prevent me from entering the realm of normal human functioning.

I was sent to see the lady because at break, I spent the entire time walking up and down the kerb that separated the playground

from the grassy verge. When the teacher asked questions, sometimes I stuck my hand up and told a long, elaborate lie: "

then I went right into the crater of the volcano in a big bubble device." There was a corner of the classroom that I had decided was mine. If other kids entered it, they would get pushed. I hadn't spoken until I was two and a quarter years old. Later, I used words only for games I had invented. I didn't see any other use for words.


The psychiatrist and I had a contest once to find the best description of how I felt when the words ran out. She wondered if it was like going into the labyrinth to fight the minotaur only to find that the ball of string wasn't long enough. I suggested that it was more like walking down a tightrope only to discover halfway along that your laces were untied.

She encouraged me to keep a journal. I noted in it - at age 12 - two lines from Emerson: "What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say" and, "People who know how to act are never preachers." I describe in the journal how I was writing while sitting cross-legged by a big bay window, my forehead was against the glass. I wrote that the lines from Emerson suggest the possibility of transforming my "autism" into an ideal (I use the inverted commas because the therapists were reluctant to make an outright diagnosis; I can imagine them writing "borderline"). Not speaking very much was getting to be a problem by age 12. Other children were less pliable, less willing to play my games. There were groups, and I was outside them. In the eyes of my parents and their friends, I was evolving from a quiet and charming child into a quiet and menacing teenager.

I didn't understand how to talk. I could reply, and I could ask. But I couldn't talk. I had Emerson to help me. I wouldn't talk. I didn't need friends. I didn't need approval. I had my thoughts. And my books. And my journal. I would just act, and then they would know.


remember learning that Isaac Newton refused to meet both Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, when they were keen to meet

him. I remember thinking, "Yeah, good on him." Around the same time, however, in the same journal, I have written out a

line from Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth: "She wanted to get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape that she knew."

It took me a long time to learn and to harness the value of conversation. But by the time I wrote those things in my journal, I had at least learnt various lesser ways of talking. I could manage politeness. Indeed, I could make people miserable with my politeness. Friends of my parents would ask me about school and about video games. Dressed by my mother into a little suit, with my arms stiff by my sides, I would reply briefly, but extremely politely. There are two crimes for which a child will not forgive an adult. One is insincerity, the other is weakness. When my parents' friends, faced with my silence, asked me these questions, to my mind they became guilty of both. I couldn't understand why they would care about my schooling or about what books I was reading. I understood that there was this arcane art known as "making conversation," but, jeez, the practitioners had to become so inauthentic. So I replied with contempt, hiding the contempt behind politeness. It was like a puzzle, politeness. If you fit phrases together correctly, you were successful. The adult smiled, and left you alone. Later they told one of your parents that you were a "good kid."

My speech was probably syntactically and grammatically more accurate when I was a kid. It is as if I decided to start speaking solely because I understood it to constitute an intellectual challenge. I never produced Aramaic mutterings, but I quickly became fluent in the three languages of my household. I remember showing off in front of adults by flipping between Urdu, Punjabi and English, all in the same sentence.

Lying was another challenge. The goal was to make the story as fantastical as possible without putting the listener in the position where he or she would have to challenge its veracity. It helps being "foreign," I suppose. People are much less willing to interrupt when you have "difference" on your side. The volcano I told my teacher about was in the north of Iran. How could she know for sure there wasn't a bubble device that took you down into the crater? She believed my stories. At the next parent-teacher night, she commended my parents for their adventures. I remember that night, sitting on the edge of my bed for hours, waiting for them to return home, imagining the dialogue through which my lies would be uncovered. As it happened, I received no reprimand. It was far worse. My parents came home and telephoned the therapist. They seemed a little afraid of me that night and it made me cry. But it didn't make me stop. And the best place to tell lies wasn't at school: it was at buffet breakfasts in hotels. I would come downstairs and explain to an old couple that my parents were dead but that their last request had been that my nanny take me for a trip around the world. I would describe the places where we had already been.

I was an abominable child. I was drunk on the special kind of intelligence that I possessed. And none of the talking was an

escape from myself. I didn't get Wharton's point at all. My talking was a way of deepening my confinement. I was also beginning to learn a third way of talking: argument. I come from a political family. I was always encouraged to believe that no place and no cause is too far away. We sat down to dinner together most nights, and we didn't talk about what had occupied our lives during the day: we talked about other lives and other problems. We stored up news items to relate to each other, provocations to dispute over the pouring of water and the distribution of pickles. As I grew older, I went from observing these arguments and intuiting that something important was going on, to participating in them. The trouble with argument can be that it is directed towards winning. But we seemed to understand that. We eliminated the competitive aspect of it, rotating our commitments. It was through this exercise that I began to learn how to talk; that is, to talk properly and devotedly.

The usual perception of undergraduates is that, in their immaturity, they strive to convert conversation into argument. But as an undergraduate in Glasgow, I learned to go the other way. When the stereo was off, or at least when the volume was turned down, we talked. We didn't argue, we didn't tell lies, we talked. We even went to the pub. The pub was demystified for me. When I first came to this country, I couldn't comprehend this form of entertainment, which seemed to involve going to a room and talking. Just that. You talked, for hours. Why weren't you watching television or reading a book? How could there be enough to say, evening after evening? I ordered a round as if it was an oral exam - a lager tops, a pint of eighty, a Diet Coke. I took a seat. And I learned how to escape from myself. I resorted to Nietzsche: "When we talk in company we lose our unique tone of voice, and this leads us to make statements which in no way correspond to our real thoughts."


remember sitting with my friends and watching as they stopped being my friends. The way they moved their hands changed.

The manner in which they spoke changed. They suddenly revealed knowledge of fantastic arcana. It was exactly this that had once irritated me. It was exactly because of these changes created by conversation that I had identified it as inauthentic. But then I got it. Inauthenticity was fun. There was nothing immoral in trying to entertain people. It didn't make you weak. And it turned out that I did know how to do it. Conversation was a game, just like the games I used to invent. And it didn't matter

that I was "autistic." Once I knew that I was participating in a game, the words came more easily. They had a reason for coming out. What I still find difficult is having to tell people what I feel. That is when the words run out. I don't see the point

of doing it, and I am no good at it. What I also find difficult is working out what people are feeling and why they might be

telling me about what they feel.

My friends often come to talk to me when they are sad. They don't understand this fully, but I am a useful person to talk to when they are sad precisely because I am bad at relating and reassuring. I will either intellectualise the sadness or I will lead them out of that area by involuntarily making inappropriate connections. Either way they end up feeling better. I get the credit. But I am a fraud.

What has the socially arid child learned about the "art of conversation"? Actually, I didn't realise what I had learnt until I came to live and work in Cambridge, where there were two dominant modes of talking. There was politeness - what do you study and what college do you study it at, how was your day, what did you read? And usually that was the prelude to the second mode: exchange of information. I'll tell you about peasant farming in Mongolia if you'll tell me about the 19th-century French novel. The art of conversation was not practised at all widely. At parties, when the politeness ran out and people felt that the occasion required them to refrain from exchanging information - that is, talking about work - we played charades. We never played charades in Glasgow.

A conversation, or a certain type of conversation, is a performance. This is why it doesn't matter if we lose our unique tone of

voice. That's part of the point. Conversation requires insincerity. Or at least it is often indifferent as to whether a statement is sincere or insincere. What matters is whether it is funny, or disputatious, or revealing, or sad. Conversation shouldn't be directed at a conclusion either, and it shouldn't firmly be about something. It should circle, it should break off, it should

recommence at an entirely different point. A conversation is merely a series of juxtapositions. A phrase in what I said, a topic,

a point of view, connects with something that you contain. Then you say something. And so we proceed.

The problem with the academic intelligence is that it is too tidy. It reacts against insincerity, hyperbole, provocation and wordplay, which are all essential to the art of conversation. If the aim is to establish truth, then of course all of these elements must be disciplined. In a highly competitive environment like Cambridge, it may be better to stay silent or speak reservedly, and it is never advisable to take the weaker position for the sake of doing something entertaining with it or just for the sake of keeping the conversation going. It is never advisable to begin talking about non-serious topics. I don't of course claim this is true of every conversation that took place there, only that it is a tendency. And I don't imagine that the problem exists only in Cambridge. Another element of the problem may be the specialisation of knowledge, and of ways of talking. Every subject, every profession, has its own discourse. Every conversation, on the other hand, requires a shared background.

I used to silently condemn passengers who talked to strangers on buses or trains. Why can't they be alone with themselves?

Don't they have material in their heads to amuse themselves for this short trip? I understood their loquacity as a weakness. But now I've realised: they are the daring ones. They are willing to perform. They want a new tightrope all the time. And so

recently, as a part of my effort fully to assimilate the ethics of conversation, I started a conversation with a stranger. Two strangers, in fact. It was on a plane, with an elderly Israeli couple. Fairly early on, they explained to me, in the manner of unclogging a drain, that they were both anti-Zionists and they could never live in Israel again. But because I wasn't interested

in winning an argument, because I was interested in having a conversation, I rhapsodised about nationalism, and the notion of

a homeland. I compared Israel to Pakistan. There are deep disanalogies between the two cases, but I wasn't being a scholar.

The couple resisted me for some time. But gradually they spoke about the relief they felt when they originally moved to Israel. They spoke happily about living in a kibbutz. They spoke about their children's experiences of Israel, especially of military service. One had liked it, one had not. They spoke about friends who still lived in Israel, their insecurities, their qualms. I had a lovely time on that flight. I also acquired so many stories for use in other conversations. As George Meredith

put it: "Anecdotes are portable; they can be carried home, they are disbursable at other tables." I also just plain learned a lot. My understanding of the problem became more sophisticated. And this happened exactly because I treated the situation as a conversation, and not as an argument. We didn't hold forth as if it was an exchange of information; we made it into a performance, into an event in itself.

I write philosophy nowadays, of the political and legal varieties. It is impossible for me not to think about conversation in those contexts. Now that I get conversation, the question arises, can I use this understanding in my work? There is a strand of thought which holds that a political system prospers from conversation. Habermas wrote that if we were all inserted into an "ideal speech situation" (the economy cabin of a 747?), we would ultimately come to a consensus on any issue. At the very least, our disagreements would be clarified, misunderstandings would be removed. The promise of such rewards becomes the premise for proposals for institutionalised, democratic conversations. It may be that such proposals are flawed because we wouldn't all end up agreeing. Perhaps different traditions contain different conceptions of reason and substantiate different forms of experience and knowledge, and so certain disagreements may well be intractable. A further problem with such models of democracy may be that they conceive of conversation not as a performance but as a process. The point of the conversation is stipulated: it is agreement. Would we want to take part in such a conversation? Would the fun still be there? I know a lot of people who would love to take part in such conversations, but only because they have such truth-directed conversations all the time and only because they know they are good at them. Would the rest of us want to have a conversation with them? The thing about conversational democracy may be that the people who are good at the art of conversation might be rotten conversational democrats. The ones that prosper would be those that are good at argument. And those who are good at argument - the logical, the single-minded, the dominating types - often have terrible opinions.

That isn't to say that the art of conversation, the art of pure conversation as I have attempted to separate it, has no political implications. As a political philosopher, I am able to get excited about the conversation on the plane, but for a different reason. What may be politically valuable about conversation is the insincerity it encourages. My parents' friends had no interest in what comics I read, but it was good that they asked me. Their effort was important. My effort, in trying to convince the Israeli couple to be Zionists again, was important. Conversation flourishes when we entertain each other. Conversation flows when we, each of us, flit between different points of view. Conversation sometimes requires us to ask questions, the answers to which we are not interested in ourselves, but which we feel the other person might enjoy or appreciate the opportunity to provide. Conversation, in short, promotes civility. A society that is marked by deep disagreement, and characterised by a high level of heterogeneity, should certainly place a high value on civility. It may not be possible for us to agree. But it may be possible for us to disagree entertainingly and be able to disagree in ways so that we can see and even expound each other's point of view.

What might this political ideal of conversation require? I suspect it requires institutions where we simply come across each other in the course of doing something other than our jobs: parks, schools, shopping centres. It should be possible to meet people of all sorts in these places. It is also the case that you can't have a good conversation unless you are receptive to what your co-conversants are telling you, and do not feel threatened by them. Hence you need some level of protection. I wouldn't have a conversation with a neo-nazi unless I knew that there were prohibitions against him harming me. Similarly, the neo-nazi wouldn't have a proper conversation with me unless he was sure that by revealing himself to me, he wasn't running the risk of arrest.

We need secure associations in which to learn how to talk. I did. I needed my family. I needed my friends at law school. Perhaps I also needed to get a grip on my "cultural identity." But if I am too sure about where I stand, if I am overly concerned with authenticity, I will struggle in conversation, and will not enter into it. Similarly, if my knowledge is too particular, or if I am too convinced of the importance of the things that I know, I will try and swing every conversation towards my topic and my point of view. That isn't civil. That is antagonistic.

Have I solved my own problem with conversation? Have I worked out the conundrum that used to flummox me? Sort of. I still can't do relating and reassuring. I still unsettle my poor parents. They ring me up, and they tell me about their lives, and I go quiet. "How are you?" they ask. I say "fine," and then I ask "what else?" I throw it back to them. I don't really know what else to do. This worries me. I'll get divorced because of it. My children will see me as distant. I can walk the tightrope now,

but, as if I were a character in a magical realist novel, I can't walk on the plain, ordinary ground.

I listened to Tom and Maureen again recently. I went to visit the lady in the high-backed chair. We put the tape on for a giggle. I suddenly realised that Tom and Maureen were having a really boring conversation. But then they were doing it for the sake of a tape. I ran some of the ideas for this article by my analyst. She said something about progress and we both laughed. She then spoke at some length about how aeroplanes are now furnished in such a way as to eliminate conversation. Why can't some of the seats face each other? Why is it necessary to keep adding more video channels? She stopped and looked at me in a funny way. I realised that I had been gazing down and imagining designs on her carpet.

Learning to talk