Wit’s end – On smartphones, the death of conversation, and Dorothy Parker

Frank McNally: An Irishman’s Diary

If television didn’t kill the art of conversation, entirely, the smartphone seems to have finished the job. It has eliminated the risk of casual discourse between strangers in public places, at least, because if people are not unwittingly transfixed by their screens these days, they’re pretending to be, as a defence strategy against social behaviour.

Sound quality issues aside, I suspect that one of the reasons earphones have been getting bigger is to make them more visible, warding off all conversational approaches, in cafés or on public transport, from friends you haven’t met yet.

Yes, some of us used to do the same thing using only books and a hostile demeanour. But that still gave a sporting chance to friendly old codgers who needed company, not to mention beautiful strangers who might notice your reading material – "The Brothers Karamazov? My favourite Dostoevsky" – before joining you for coffee and a new life together.

Never mind public spaces, though. Even intimate gatherings of established friends have been ruined by the smartphone blight. This may be a blessing for shy people or dull conversationalists. But for wits and raconteurs, it’s a disaster.


If you tell a funny story among friends now, it better be short, because otherwise, just as you’re setting up the punchline, somebody who wasn’t listening anyway will interrupt with the latest viral Twitter sensation, which is much more hilarious than you. It only adds to the humiliation when, as happens too often, the comedian is a cat.

The iPhone era would be a bad time to be setting up one of those famously witty social circles, like the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. That was a group of New York writers and actors who met for lunch every day and exchanged rapier-like repartee, live, with their greatest hits sure to replayed afterwards, in slow motion, by the press.

There were about a dozen regular members of the circle, and many more who dropped in occasionally. So it must have been pretty competitive at times. But today, thanks to smartphones, the circle could be global. The whole world would be liable to butt in.

Mind you, I'm sure there was plenty of cheating in the Algonquin Hotel. No doubt, as in live cookery programmes, much of the stuff had been baked earlier. And if you fluffed your line, or somebody talked over it, you could always clean it up for the press release.

The Round Table's best-known member was Dorothy Parker, who is being celebrated in New York this week, Wednesday having been her 125th anniversary.  Commemorations there include poetry readings, because comic verse was a big thing among the Algonquins. But verse aside, Parker might have been better equipped than most to compete with Twitter, since she was also a master of the one-liner.

A classic example is her quip: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think”.

That, for obvious reasons, did not make it into print, immediately, or for years afterwards, and may soon have to be suppressed again. It was too risqué at the time, for merely mentioning female sex workers, and has since become risqué again, for insulting them.

In any case, it is generally agreed that Parker did say it, although by the time it started being referred to in print, even obliquely, its origins were murky. The consensus is it happened during one of those verbal contests wherein people were challenged to devise funny sentences for given words. A more innocent example was her fellow Algonquin, Franklin Adams, coining the phrase "Meretricious and a happy new year".

Another supposed Parker classic concerned martinis, although it too had a sexual sub-theme. It was a verse rather than a one-liner, but still short enough to be Twitter-friendly. Indeed, it was among the tributes being tweeted this week, and may well have been quoted over a dinner table somewhere, even as another speaker tried to be funny.

The verse goes: “I like to have a martini/Two at the very most/After three I’m under the table/After four I’m under my host”. But famous as Parker is for saying this, it seems she never did, because it’s not in any of her books.

Despite the verse combing alcohol promotion with a health warning, the modern-day Algonquin did see fit to reproduce it on cocktail napkins once. But even these have since disappeared and the Dorothy Parker Society (dorothyparker.com) agrees the verse is “probably” not hers. Not that it has been attributed to anyone else either. It must have been just the drink talking.