The uncoupling of conversation from connecting


Photo: Kat N.L.M.

There’s a tension between our innate human need for social interaction and the technology we use to enhance that connectivity.

Centuries ago the technology that brought us together might have been a campfire.  The interaction was conversation, between family and clan members, or among village neighbors.

Today we have smart phones and computers that allow us to converse, even if we are thousands of miles removed from one another, in the form of text messages and social media posts.

And while the need to connect remains, the means by which we do so creates a physical barrier that denies us the ability to see and to hear one another.  The subtleties and nuances of conversation are lost as we atomize relationships.

Thus the tension.  The means by which we connect potentially supplants true connection. 

All we need to do is look up to notice that everyone is looking down.  Transfixed by pixels that tell is in breathless bites the latest news, both momentous and mundane.

Those younger than I, which at this point includes the vast majority of the human population, are able to seamlessly shift from text to text, person to person, without a hint of guile or regret.  They remind me of the chess master who simultaneously plays a dozen matches at once – minus the brain bandwidth.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at M.I.T. and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, has been studying the psychology of online relationships for the past 30 years.  More recently her research has focused on the question of what happens to face-to-face conversation when so many say they would rather text than talk.

In a recent article she recounts the story of a college junior explaining what is wrong about life in his generation.  “Our texts are fine,” he said.  “It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together that’s the problem.”

Turtle says the mere presence of a phone can alter a conversation.  Citing a study from the University of Michigan, she says one of the most significant results of the shift to rapid fire, superficial chatting is a loss of empathy – the ability to understand and share feelings.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy.  We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation – at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.  But it is in this type of conversation – where 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 empathy and intimacy flourish.  In these conversations, we learn who we are.

It’s a stunning statement.  In our growing preference to chat online we loose empathy and intimacy.

Contrast this with the findings of a pair of longitudinal studies on healthy adult development.  The first, begun in 1938, was originally known as the Grant Study in Social Adjustments.  It tracked several all-male Harvard classes, the members of which seemed destined for success.

Its results were later merged with the Glueck Study, a similar effort to track the progress of 456 poor, non-delinquent white children from Boston’s inner city, begun in the 1940s.  The research is ongoing and is now known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Adam Piore reports that in 2009 Joshua Wolf Shenk, writing for The Atlantic, asked George Vaillant, the study’s longest serving director, what he thought was its most important finding since its inception.

“The only thing that really matters in life are your relations to other people,” he said.

In the intervening years study after study has found that it is the quality of our personal relationships that correlate most highly with happiness and well-being.

Robert Waldinger of Harvard Medical School currently leads the study.  “Close relations and social connections keep you happy and healthy,” he says. “That is the bottom line.  People who were more concerned with achievement or less concerned with connection were less happy.  Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”

The concern today is that texting and other forms of online communication undermine the quality of our relationships.  Technology, according to this philosophy, is distracting us and eliminating the nuanced understanding and empathy derived from conversation.

“Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding,” Sherry Turkle says in a 2012 TED talk.  “And we clean them up with technology.  And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection.”

Contrary to popular opinion and anecdotal evidence, however, technology will not doom us – leading to a life of loneliness and superficial relationships.  Parents and Luddites have made this claim for generations with little to show for their worry.

Instead, as with so much else, it is balance that is needed.  Not a forsaking of phones, but their wise use.

Turkle, citing a 2014 study of children at an electronic devise-free camp, says we are resilient.  After five days without phones or tablets these children “were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group.”

The campers talked to one another, she says.  They were able to pay attention and put themselves in the shoes of others.  And they quickly reached the point where they did not miss or need their electronic devises.

The trick is to use these online devices to enhance our offline relationships, by communicating with people with whom we already have strong ties.  We can reconnect with long-lost friends or develop a social connection with a business colleague.

According to Piore, Keith Hampton, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, argues that Facebook “is fundamentally changing the nature of relationships in ways that have been lost since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when people began leaving their native villages behind to head to cities for new opportunities, and lost contact with the people they grew up with.”

The primacy of relationships will remain intrinsic to the human experience.  Indeed, it can be argued that modern communications technology is merely a tool to facilitate this basic need.

However, we must guard against its mindless use and the atrophying of self-reflection and empathy that results from a preference for chatting online.  Or from not allowing these conversations to happen in the first place because we automatically reach for our phones.

Our challenge is to acknowledge and cultivate the very personal and affirming value of face-to-face conversation, and limit our use of electronic devices so that they enhance those relationships, rather than replace them.

“In our hearts, we know this,” says Sherry Turkle, “and now research is catching up with our intuitions.  We face a significant choice.  It is not about giving up our phones but about using them with greater intention.  Conversation is there for us to reclaim.  For the failing connections of our digital world, it is the talking cure.”


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