There is a crisis in the art of conversation, and it's making us hungry. On the one hand, we face a famine of quality conversation in our relationships. The typical British couple spends more time watching television together – on average, 55 minutes a day – than talking to each other. And the most common reason given for divorce in the West is wives complaining that their husbands don't speak or listen to them.
On the other hand, thanks to technology, we are awash with superficial talk. Think of all the staccato texts and Facebook posts sent last year – how many of those words really added depth and meaning to our lives? We're stuffing ourselves with chatter, but ending up starved of the quality conversation that Socrates savoured.
So should 2012 be the year to put ourselves on a digital diet, as several self-help gurus have suggested? Is it time to worry less about inches on our waistline and more about our hours online?
Any tour of the history of conversation should begin in the 18th century. This was the golden age of the London coffee house. Presiding over hundreds of conversation clubs was the imposing figure of Dr Samuel Johnson, generally acknowledged as the greatest talker in British history.
If only. Contrary to reputation, Johnson was one of history's most disastrous conversationalists, and we have barely recovered from his legacy. "None of the desires dictated by vanity is more general, or less blameable, than that of being distinguished for the arts of conversation," he declared in The Rambler on 4 January, 1752.
In doing so, he admitted that his preferred form of talk was showing off, just as it was in the literary salons emerging in France in the same period. The doctor was full of clever quips and epigrams that served to end conversations rather than open them out. The lesson from the 18th century is that we should avoid that superficial game of spouting witty one-liners and name-dropping the latest opera we've seen.
The 19th century gave birth to the era of hidden emotions. A stark divide arose between how men and women expressed themselves. Men came to prize cool rationality and emotional reserve, while women were more likely to share their inner thoughts and feelings – at least with one another – and showed a greater capacity for sympathetic listening. Just think of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, who was unable to reveal his feelings for Elizabeth Bennet, held back by pride, social convention and emotional reticence – a good recipe for psychological torture.
Victorian marriage guides said it all, advising women not to burden their husbands with personal troubles, while children were encouraged to repress their feelings.
All this emotional starvation gave way, in the 20th century, to the era of intimate conversation, a transformation born of a new culture of self-reflection in the West and spurred on by the invention of psychoanalysis and the self-help industry.
It gradually became acceptable – especially for men – to talk openly about their emotions with friends and family. And following the sexual revolution in the 1960s, couples were starting to discuss the touchy topic of sex, which lay at the root of so many relationship troubles. It all culminated in The Oprah Winfrey Show, where everyone from butch truck drivers to Hollywood celebs publicly unpacked their emotional baggage in a way that would have shocked a Victorian paterfamilias.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th century a conversational revolution had occurred, with spouses and families being able to talk with each other in ways unimaginable in the past, mainly because men had become – emotionally speaking – a little more like women.
We've come a long way in the history of conversation, and should make the most of our inheritance by opting for a healthy portion of emotional openness. Hiding behind a mask has become old-fashioned. Being open about our fears and vulnerabilities is a key ingredient for better conversation. Why? Because if you do it, others will too, with the magic result of a human bond.
So what has digital culture brought to the conversational dinner table? Quick-fire and efficient online talk – which is more about exchanging information than emotions – threatens to send the quality of conversation back to the Middle Ages. And if George Orwell were alive today, he'd be the first to warn us off our technological sweet-tooth. Back in the 1940s, he had already noted a sinister development:
"In very many English homes, the radio is literally never turned off, though it is manipulated from time to time so as to make sure that only light music will come out of it. I know people who will keep the radio playing all through a meal and at the same time continue talking just loudly enough for the voices and the music to cancel out. This is done with a definite purpose. The music prevents the conversation from becoming serious or even coherent."
Just imagine what he would have said about TV, Twitter and texting. Orwell would have led the digital diet brigade, urging us to lock our televisions in a cupboard for a month. Or requesting dinner guests to leave mobile phones on silent in the hallway, just as medieval diners used to leave their weapons at the door.
But the digital age has brought welcome guests to the conversational table, too. My three-year-old twins sit down for breakfast in Oxford every Sunday morning and, courtesy of Skype, are joined by their grandparents in Sydney. And only last month, my high-school history teacher found me, 20 years on, through Facebook. We met for a moving conversation.
It's clear that we can't blame all our conversational woes on living in a wired world, nor will we find all the solutions in a digital detox. So, apart from avoiding vanity-driven repartee and being more open about our emotions, how can we make the switch from high-quantity chatter to high-quality conversation?
A good starting place is to cultivate curiosity about strangers, especially those outside our usual social circles. This doesn't mean making polite chat about the weather: rather, it means exchanging thoughts on beliefs and experiences that matter to us, from love to religion, politics to death. We could even invite them to a meal: as W S Gilbert (the other half of Sullivan) said: "It isn't so much what's on the table that matters, as what's on the chairs."
Up for a bigger challenge? Then tackle the empathy deficit in your relationships and make the imaginative leap of looking at the world through the eyes of others. Maybe you haven't fully appreciated the strains of looking after three toddlers all day. The biggest conversational crime we can commit is to assume we already know what others are thinking and feeling.
Ultimately, though, the art of conversation is to treat it as an adventure where two or more minds meet with the prospect of creating something new, whether it happens online or eye to eye. Honour the credo of the historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin: "A satisfying conversation is one in which you say what you have never said before." Bon appétit.