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)