Community Voices

Ditching the phone to catch up on conversation — why it’s important

A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.” — Mark Twain.

Conversation stimulates, excites, and enables us to rise above ourselves. When we share ideas, when we press an argument, our minds are strengthened and stimulated. I have been lucky to have had amazing conversations with good company. And in those moments, time seems to stand still — it’s is just them, me and the journey.

There is much to learn from a great conversation. My mom was the first person to show me this. No matter what she was doing, she always welcomed my 6-year old dialogue. And from those moments, I realized how lovely it was — to have someone who was interested in hearing my stories and in sharing theirs.

Conversations inspire us. Our desire to hear and share ideas and stories reflects the basic human need to understand patterns of life — not merely as an intellectual exercise but as a personal, emotional experience. Conversation is a powerful tool that keeps people emotionally connected.

Not too long ago, a close friend of mine said, “Please, let’s meet for coffee — we need to catch up.” I began to realize how those moments — the ones we took for granted as children while sitting up in a treehouse — had become elusive. As we get caught up in life, the more we are inclined to move away from face-to-face conversation in exchange for more efficacious but detached text salutations or social media posts.

Evolution of the conversation

Catherine Blyth, in her Dailymail article, “We’re so addicted to text and email we’re losing the delicate art of conversation. So do we need to learn to talk again?” shares her feelings about texting. Texting doesn’t allow people to see one another’s smile when receiving a warm or funny message. And no one really bothers typing simple but powerful inquiries like ‘Really?’ or ‘Go on.’

The digital natives, in their expediency and casual nature, can tweet, Facetime, or text via Snapchat and WhatsApp for hours. Yet in these conversations they are missing the nuances of eye contact, facial expressions and the intonations of a human voice.

Mental well being has been linked to five daily actions — connect with others, be active, be curious, keep learning and give to others. A good conversation delivers all five but conversations have become difficult. We live in a world where we are wrapped in personal cocoons, insulated from those around us.

Real conversation is infinitely more subtle and complex than electronic communication. It doesn’t just involve talking; it involves listening, judging intonation, subtext and nuance, assessing facial expressions, and deciding whether something is a joke or not.

Additionally, many young adults admit they don’t often have the patience to engage in a conversation before picking up the phone. These individuals are referred to as what psychologists call the “app generation,” or those who grew up with phones and apps in hand. This tendency promotes the expectation that the world responds like an app or algorithm — quickly and efficiently. Conversation also carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.

Author Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation) says that studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel.

Turkle says empathy is declining with technology — across all generations. We have lost the desire for open-ended and spontaneous conversations — those which allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. Yet it is in these conversations where we learn to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — where empathy and intimacy flourish.

Pathways to Conversation

Solitude: Internal conversations provide the opportunity for self-reflection. Only when we are secure with ourselves can we really hear what other people have to say. Solitude is necessary for inner dialogue — there we learn to concentrate, imagine and listen to ourselves. We need these skills to be fully present when we are ready to talk with others.

Jonathan Franzen’s New York Times review of Reclaiming Conversation proposes the impact of socioeconomics on conversation. He asks about those too anxious or lonely to resist technology or those too poor or overworked to escape it. Is conversation and solitude something only for the middle and upper class?

He exposes the simple comparison of airport waiting areas — how the “peons’’’ lounge is saturated in advertising and filled with mesmerizing screens — while the business lounge provides a quiet, ad-free world. Creative, inventive minds require silence yet the minds of others are treated as a resource — the consumer-based audience. Digital technologies aren’t politically neutral. Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive.

Our devices: Phones have become psychologically potent devices. Reclaiming conversations requires that we recognize our vulnerability when we use them. We can choose not to carry our phones all the time. We can store them in a room and check on them every hour or so while we work on other things or talk to other people. We can create device-free spaces in our home and workplace that promote conversation and/or solitude.

Redesigned technology: The iPhone offers a “do not disturb” mode. This prevents interruptions from rings, lights or vibrations while setting the phone to receive calls from designated people or if someone calls you repeatedly. What if our phones were not designed to keep us attached, but to allowed us freedom to do our work? What if the success of a device was measured by time well spent rather than how much time we spend on the phone?

Conversations — the kids and family

The trouble with talk begins young. Playground observations of today’s 12-year-olds show how they play like 8-year olds. They exclude one another and don’t seem able to put themselves in the place of other children. Students are commonly seen sitting in the cafeteria staring into their phones. And when they do share, they simply share what is on their phones.

So far, one generation has grown up with phone toting, emotionally absent parents. The ones who are consumed with their phones while the kids are on the playground or during a school open house. The ones whose real lives are distracted by their online lives. Catching up on emails, updating Facebook or watching the latest funny cat video are not worth endangering your child’s mental (and physical) health. We can do all that stuff later.

Claire McCarthy, MD says that talking to kids is important. It helps their language development, behavior and helps keep them safe. During meals, conversations can help increase vocabulary, and decrease obesity. Families can find time for conversation by having no devices at dinner or in the car. When this concept is introduced early, it is more of a family culture than punitive.

In her article, “Put Down Your Phone and Talk to Your Kid,” McCarthy says through talking, we learn about each other’s lives. We laugh, we guide, we vent, we explore feelings, we build trust. Children desperately need all of this from their parents and caregivers.

Conversation is there for us to reclaim. For the failing connections in our digital world, talking is the cure.

Laurie Futterman, ARNP, chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center.