What has happened to meaningful conversation? In the New York Times Review, September 26, 2015, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” Sherry Turkle identifies technology as the culprit – namely the cell phone:
• So conversation proceeds [amidst cell-phone interruptions], but… The effect is what you would expect: Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out.
Turkle argues that this makes for superficial conversations:
• 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. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.
What do we sacrifice for the convenience of a cell phone? Turkle observes that through direct conversation:
• We learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that [is where] empathy and intimacy flourish.
However, as she points out, there seems to be other factors involved:
• In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.
The decline in empathy and intimate conversations seems to even pre-date the advent of the cell-phone. Turkle identifies our discomfort with solitude and any attempt to try to become grounded in ourselves and self-awareness as the source of the problem:
• In one experiment, many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts.
While some thrive on the contemplative life, others dread it. This resistance to encountering self is tragic. Turkle reflects that:
• In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic…If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely…When we are secure in ourselves, we are able to really hear what other people have to say.
Why is it that security – the comfort in knowing and accepting where we stand – enables us to hear and to attend to others? I think that there are a numbers of ways that we can understand this.
When we accept ourselves, we can accept others. Their problems, weaknesses, and even their strengths do not threaten us. We are free to appreciate them for who they are. When our most pressing needs are resolved, we are also free to attend to the needs and anxieties of others.
Besides, when we are secure in our own opinions and even in our failings, we need not fear being exposed, ridiculed, or backed into the wall.
Also, when we know where we stand and why we stand there, and this requires a lot of personal reflection, we can comfortably respond. It’s like hitting a home run. Our feet must be planted firmly and securely. When our feet aren’t planted securely, we are off-balance and confused.
Let’s use an example. Your friend tells you about a wonderful extra-marital affair he is enjoying. You ask him about its impact on his wife and kids. He answers that everything is just fine.
Where do you go from there? You feel that adultery is wrong and destructive, but you also believe that your friend has to do what feels is right for him. (You are a moral relativist and don’t believe in objective moral truths.) Consequently, you are very confused and do not know how to respond. You try to resolve your confusion, but your paradigms are in irresolvable conflict. Result – great discomfort and a huge headache! Further contemplation? It just leads to frustration. It’s like starting to button your shirt with the wrong button. Every other button will be out of place.
We have to go back to the beginning, but that is too difficult. Questioning moral relativism is like questioning the very foundation of our life.
Turkle suggests that we simply reclaim conversation:
• This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours.
However, it is one thing to acknowledge this extensive problem, but it’s another thing to effectively confront it, especially in light of our antipathy to solitude and self-examination.