Point At Issue: Have We Lost The Art Of Conversation?


If we look at humanity from the perspective of inventions and discoveries in particular time periods, it is safe to assume that we live in the communication age. What was considered to be fiction a few years ago is now our reality. William Gibson might have written about a “consensual hallucination” which he called Cyberspace, but it is known as the World Wide Web today. Personal Access Data Devices (PADDs) were frequently used by crew members in Star Trek, but its current iteration aka the tablet is probably where this article is being read right now.

 It is a testament to our progress as a civilization that communication isn’t a problem anymore. All corners of the world are accessible at the tip of our fingers. Almost every app that is part of social media has some feature that lets you communicate with your fellow users in some way shape or form, either through messages, or comments on their posts, or even video calls. It isn’t surprising to interact with people sitting somewhere in Australia or Zimbabwe in the same post.

So how much time are we spending on media? According to a study done in the first quarter of 2018 by global information, data and measurement company Nielsen, over a third of the American population uses an Internet-connected device, and adults spend about 11 hours a day or more “listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with the media” That’s about half our day. Add to that the fact that most of us sleep for about 6-8 hours, and everyone has chores and traveling and that a day has only 24 hours, there isn’t much time left for anything else. Especially something like having conversations with people. That leaves a major cloud of doubt hanging over our ability to have conversations with people. Have we lost the art of conversation?

The argument can be made that that is what social media is. It is basically one giant face-to-face meet-up/party/conversation heaven. But is that really the case? You can do a simple test to see if that’s true. All you need to do is go through your profile on social media. This could be anything: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Can you safely say that you have spoken to at least 10 percent of the people/followers/friends that are listed on your profile in the past few days? Weeks? Months? The answer in most cases might be an unfortunate no.

Whenever we put something online, we invariably tend to put our best foot forward. Which means that people usually get to see a side of us that we intend to be seen. It isn’t genuine. The conversations we have online can also be damaging. Research conducted by Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that “online relationships help us sidestep a lot of the trouble.” The normal, boring parts of a conversation, parts which most people labor through or tune out, are the parts that make a conversation human. Online communication takes the human equation out.

Also, a conversation between two people is not uniform. One person might introduce a topic and the other person might add to it, or just listen, but conversations aren’t curated. You have to be spontaneous, and spontaneity involves awkward pauses and awkward statements. There are times when one switches abruptly from one part to a totally different part. But online conversations take all of this out of the equation. They hardly even qualify as one.

Turkle thinks that the world has become more talkative, which is evident in the number of posts across various platforms, or even professional communication like emails. However, people talk “at each other rather than with each other,” which makes things complex. She suggests measures like taking back our right to be dull and limiting device usage in sacred spaces like the dinner table. She also suggests we look into each other’s eyes when we talk, and that we read each other’s movements.

The measures that Turkle suggests aren’t too far-fetched. Most articles on how to build your confidence or how to act at interviews often include some of the above measures. Looking into someone’s eyes when you speak to them isn’t just part of a conversation, it is simply being attentive and paying attention to someone else. The act of a conversation involves connecting with another person’s thoughts which they feel comfortable enough to vocalize and it involves feedback in the form of an answer or another question that can keep the conversation going.

All the gadgetry we have at our disposal does make things easier. A video call can help you see the person as well as observe them. People often post about things that they might not be comfortable discussing in person, which can be beneficial in some cases. But does that constitute a conversation? The problem with modern channels of communication is that it can lead to a generation of misanthropists. Because that’s what accessibility can do. When you can just tap a couple of buttons on your tablet or phone and order stuff right to your doorstep, there is no need for an interaction with a person.

Like most other things, you can only get better at conversations if you practice it frequently. We need to be able to listen to people and their problems in person. We can only learn and better ourselves if we can listen and hear about people who have experiences different from our own. And that can be made infinitely easier if we continue to talk. In person.