Life often requires conversational cue cards
Mr and Mrs Hendy (played by Eric Idle and Michael Palin) talk to the waiter (John Cleese) in a scene from Monty Python's Meaning of Life.
We are, as Aristotle noted, defined by words. Speech is a uniquely human gift. Yet it is surprisingly hard to talk, even with our intimates.
Take Mr and Mrs Hendy, from Monty Python's wicked Meaning of Life. We find the retired American couple at a restaurant, while on holiday. Like many friends and couples, their conversation is riddled with awkward silences and half-uttered words.
They missed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's recommendation, in Human, All-Too-Human: ''When marrying, one should ask oneself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this woman into your old age?'' To remedy the discomfiting silence, the couple order a conversation from the menu: Philosophy.
''Have you ever wondered … just why you're here?'' asks the waiter to Mr and Mrs Hendy, trying to help them begin. ''Well, we went to Miami last year,'' replies Mr Hendy ingenuously, ''and California the year before that, and we've …'' ''No, no, no. I mean … why we're here … on this planet,'' says the waiter. ''Nope,'' they reply, with satisfied smiles. The waiter, played with glee by John Cleese, gives them some conversational cue cards, to start them off.
''I never knew Schopenhauer was a philosopher,'' says Mrs Hendy with naive seriousness. ''Oh yeah,'' replies her husband, with a knowing nod, ''he's the one that begins with an 's'.'' The conversation only gets worse. Eventually Mr and Mrs Hendy complain to the waiter, who offers them a new conversation (live organ transplants).
Obviously the Monty Python team exaggerated for laughs, but real life often involves these conversational cue cards - in our heads, not on paper. Sociologists and psychologists call these ''scripts'': prearranged sets of themes and phrases. One example is sport: the matches, the scores, the players, all given spice by television commentary.
Another is gossiping or bitching about friends and colleagues. A dysfunctional or dissatisfying mate is a familiar topic for comfortable ranting.
This urge to fill the gaps in talk is perfectly human. Partly because it strengthens our bonds, but also because it calms us. German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his opus Being and Time, called this ''idle talk'' and ''passing the word along''.
For Heidegger, this wasn't a mark of ignorance, stupidity or deception. We throw ourselves into chatter and cliche because there is something genuinely unsettling about the silences they conceal. As Heidegger saw it, this is because the quiet reminds us of the nothingness that surrounds us - we come from nothing, we go to nothing, and the life in between is our own responsibility. Embarrassing pauses are hints of mortality; of our one chance to be something. Like Mr and Mrs Hendy, rather than facing death and freedom, we stuff our ears with talk. Chit-chat is a kind of existential cowardice.
One response to this is, of course, silence: facing the nothingness, and reflecting on ourselves. This is why we have meditation, whether in yoga, Buddhism, martial arts, philosophy or just a daily walk (without earphones).
But another is Mr and Mrs Hendy's cue cards. Instead of scripts for ''idle talk'', they're written to provoke reflection, catharsis and perhaps conflict. This is the idea behind the ''conversation dinners'' hosted by the School of Life, founded by author Alain de Botton.
The School of Life recently opened a brand new school in Melbourne. As one of the school's founding faculty, I hosted Australia's first conversation dinner last week: an Epicurean feast. The room at the North Fitzroy Star was filled with more than 50 strangers, united only by curiosity and an interest in good conversation. Everyone had menus: partly with food, partly with philosophical questions such as: ''Imagine you are immortal. Is the idea wonderful or horrific?''
I introduced Epicurus as a thinker and patron philosopher of the evening, but the night belonged to everyone: the point was not to sit and be entertained, but to talk straightforwardly and honestly about Epicurean ideas: pain and pleasure, wealth and freedom, friendship and equality, religion and death. And to do so while reflecting on oneself.
The result of this experiment was heartening. While guests quickly adapted the questions to their own interests and sensibilities, the cue cards worked: the conversations were rich with candour, intelligence and reflection. Folks revealed their anxieties and biases, ambitions and failures, political bugbears and domestic idiosyncrasies; they revealed, in a word, themselves. There were silences, but those of comfortable thinking and remembering, not awkward thumb-twiddling.
Some might find this intimidating, but most guests seemed chuffed by the atmosphere of honesty and acumen - many seemed liberated by the ferment of talk. And the point is not that the School of Life has a monopoly on conversation; that we cannot do this ourselves, with friends (or strangers) at the dinner table.
The point is an Epicurean one: human life is a collaborative enterprise. Yes, we have the gift of speech, as Aristotle noted - but sometimes we need help unwrapping it.
Dr Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His book Philosophy in the Garden is published by Random House Australia.