Reclaiming Conversation

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Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation was one of the most important books I read in 2015. Her book distilled to three sentences:

This is our paradox.
When we are apart: hypervigilance.
When we are together: inattention.

I believe it. Sherry’d make a point and I was a one-woman gospel choir, swaying and amening. “Solitude is important,” she calls and my response is Yes, sister. “Support unitasking and deep reading.” Deeeeeep reading, I sing. “Continuous partial attention is the new normal.” Say it isn’t so, I moan. “Make sacred spaces where no devices intrude.”  Not in the kitchen, not in the bedroom, not even in the car, I harmonize.

What Ms. Turkle did not say, however, has reverberated through my brain. She never framed it this way, but I think we are simply selfish. We have zero tolerance for boredom, for discomfort, for anything unpleasant. We now have devices that we can take refuge in rather than discipline ourselves to wait through the boring bits.

Last May, my niece graduated from a large university in California. I’ve been to a handful of college graduations recently, but I’ve never seen the rudeness that I witnessed that morning. Rudeness I participated in.

A thousand names were called and a thousand graduates walked across the stage to shake the Dean’s hand. People pulled out their phones; some teachers graded papers. I, cough cough, tried to get my seating on Southwest Airlines, even while part of me looked upon myself in astonishment.  My husband assumed the tilted coffin pose and took a nap. This wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.

Conversations take work. Conversations take energy. Conversation require me to reveal myself to my friend.

Some of the wealthiest moments of my life have been three recent reunions with childhood girlfriends. We spend a weekend practically device-free. We don’t watch movies. We talk. We listen. We experience deep, focused conversation. (Once, a friend apologized for keeping her phone nearby. She hadn’t heard from her daughter who was living across the world in a country buffeted by a typhoon!) The time and attention is a treasure, all the more so because of its rarity.

Turkle has two time-honored commands to help us out of this murky mess.

Use your words. (what she told her young daughter)
Look at me when you speak to me. (what Grandma always said)

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10 thoughts on “Reclaiming Conversation

  1. This hits me square in the face. Thank you! Sincerely. 🙂

    Though I don’t have a device-that-can-distract other than my laptop, I will often pull it out and read (um, scan; I don’t think we really “read” much on devices) blogs, etc., while I sit with my husband as he watches yet-another WWII documentary that literally bores me to death, or at least to irritation. I so often forget or ignore what he must think to inwardly justify what I’m doing: We are sitting together doing something together. But we really aren’t; he doing his thing, and I’m doing mine. He occasionally says it looks like we both have our screens. And it’s true. He doesn’t do anything device-wise (except audiobooks via ipod while delivering mail), so why should I?

    And on the other hand, I am appalled to be sitting in a restaurant, even a more upscale one than usual, and look around at everyone absorbed in their devices.

    I think I might need to read this book. Thank for such a good review, Carol!

    • Hmmm. I have a similar tale. My husband loves to watch football; I like it a little. I bring my “copy work” (copying quotes from books into my journal) and write while we watch. I did this at my son’s house and he asked if I did it at home.

      But here’s where I wonder: watching a screen together is not exactly the same as eye to eye communication. Of course, there is give and take. What it takes, I suppose, is more conversation about how we spend our time together.

  2. Such true words about our current societal actions. Seems like everyone is always looking at a screen, no matter where we go. It is especially concerning when they are trying to text and drive…scary! I am late to the Internet blog scene and not into social media at all. My sin for lack of a better word, is reading when I sit in the doctor’s offices instead of starting up a conversation. God expects better of me, I know. Next time I feel the need to bury my head in a book, I am going to look around and if there is not an opportunity for conversation I will at least smile and offer prayers for all around me. Fortunately, my husband and I still have conversations. Listening to another person can be a blessing to both I have learned. Thanks Carol, your posts always make me think, search out new books/activities and feel loved. You care and share like a true friend. love and prayers, jep

    • Ouch! Ouuuuuchhh! Your sin is my sin. When I travel by plane I find myself hoping a “talker” doesn’t sit next to me.

      And you are kindred regarding conversations with husband. With our kids gone, we’re still consistent with family dinner. We also share two hours in the car weekly. Sometimes we listen to a book together (and pause to discuss a point) but most often we just talk. It has been the best “free” therapy for our marriage.

      Funny — while I was reading comments, my husband was eating breakfast and we were catching up on yesterday’s events. I stood up from the computer (my desk is in a kitchen nook) and walked to the table and gave him my full attention. “I just wrote a blog about reclaiming conversation,” I smirked. The irony wasn’t lost on him!

      Your last two sentences: Thank you so very much, dear jep!

  3. I added this to my wish list, but I’m not sure it’ll solve a more basic problem — the lack of opportunities to practice this sort of conversation.

    • There is no easy answer to that, is there? But I think it helps if you are “ready to converse” (>>>frame of mind thing) .

      You want to hear something ironic? I just checked out Quiet from the library!

      • That’s a good point. When the opportunity does come, I’m often hopelessly stupid!

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