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Conversation Vanishing

Have you noticed that people are constantly communicating by gadget but don’t talk to each other as much as they used to?

Psychologist Sherry Turkle hit the nail on the head in a New York Times column, “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.” (Italics mine.)

Turkle noted we may be continually connected by technology but we are “alone together” whether in the same room or separated by an ocean. Many people wear earphone armor and thus protect themselves from conversation. She quotes a 16-year-old texter, “Someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

The self we present via technology can be edited or retouched while, “Human relationships are rich; they are messy and demanding.” Turkle reminds us that in conversation we pay attention to and tend to the other and points out that the word conversation derives from words that mean to move, together. Conversation is not instantaneous like an electronic connection, it moves slowly and “teaches patience.” But, perhaps most important, conversation with others teaches us how to converse with ourselves.

“We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we are having them. We used to think ‘I have a feeling, I want to make a call.’ Now our impulse is, ‘I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.’” Turkle advises us to make space for conversation. Sacred space free of devices.

Children need to learn how to converse. Being able to express themselves clearly is an important skill that helps children not only in school but also in life.

Parents, turn off the TV and car radio and start talking to each other. Start early as it takes a long time to learn the art of conversation. Ask toddlers questions that cannot be answered with one word and wait patiently for the answers. Revive the family dinner where I learned that it was possible to convince a person to agree with you by skillful argument. Have “debate dinners” with each family member in rotation picking a topic and encourage discussing both sides of the issue. Try “book review” dinners where each family member presents a book recently read and tries to convince the others to read it.

Good conversation starts with good listening. Learning not to interrupt when adults are talking is an important first lesson. Let children listen to your conversations with friends in person or on the telephone. Too often families send the kids off to play when the adults are visiting together. Better to gather everybody together including the children. Tell them the story of the Indian talking stick. In council meetings no one could speak except the person who held the talking stick which was passed to the next person. One family I know tell the children when they reach a certain age they will be old enough to hold the talking stick but until then they must listen and learn from their elders.

Help the shy child to converse by practicing and role-playing before a family gathering. Gently remind the talkative child to listen politely and not interrupt when Great-Aunt Sally goes on and on. Sit visiting playmates down at the table for a snack and encourage them to turn off all gadgets and talk to each other…you may have to get them started with a question or topic.

We need a quiet environment for conversation. Pico Iyer in a New York Times column suggests an “Internet sabbath” achieved when everyone turns off all their electronic connections from Friday night to Monday morning. Long family walks in a quiet setting also works.

Conversation is uniquely human. Parents: let’s not let our ability to make conversation with each other get rusty and unworkable.