Reclaiming Conversation


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)


Inventory and Evaluate

As we approach the twenty-first century,
popular culture is taking the lead
in establishing a sensibility,
not of intense involvement,
but of cool detachment.

~  Kenneth A. Myers, AGCaBSS

sen•si•bil•i•ty   The quality of being affected by changes in the environment
                  Acute perception or responsiveness toward something.

I can’t forget the frustration I felt whenever I talked to a certain childhood friend.  She never really focused on my eyes, but looked hither and yon.  Dialog was always staccato as she interrupted me and interrupted herself – on the slightest pretext.  I never felt like she was actually listening to me.  For me, my friend is the prototype of the detached style of communicating which, today, is the norm.  Face to face conversations are punctured by incoming text and incoming calls, our own personal version of “breaking news.” 

Sensibility is the key word in Myers’ final chapter, Where Do We Go From Here?  We are urged to not be dominated by the sensibility of popular culture (self-centered, obsessed with the new, immediate, sensuous, spectacular) but to build a culture of transcendence (truth, goodness, beauty, permanence, long-term rewards). 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

But what does that look like?  Because these are wisdom issues there isn’t a clear-cut method of evaluation.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a weekly pop culture weigh-in that would indicate our over-consumption? Even that wouldn’t measure how we are being affected by the technology or if we were deliberate or thoughtless in our engagement.   

Like so many areas in life, we need reminders.  It was a wake-up call for my husband and me on our last family backpack that 85% of the conversation revolved around quoting movies and television shows.  Where we used to sit around the table and talk (!) we often stand around the screen and show each other the latest You-Tube wonder.  We voice our concerns to our grown children; they make their own choices.  

Our rule with television has always been that people are more important than programs.  If someone stopped by for a visit, the TV went off and we focused on people.  What message does it send when you visit someone, they look over and say hello and then turn back to the tube?  I think we need to train our children in the etiquette of cell phones.  Do you take a call anytime?  How can we use technology in a way that doesn’t separate real life relationships?

Here is my own pop culture checkup:

•  Blogging  I started blogging in 2005 to stay in touch with my son at college.  Blogging in 2009 has nothing much to do with communicating with my family (I think my brother is the only family who might read it); but I enjoy the connections across the country.  Has my family benefited or suffered with my blogging time?  I am guilty of neglect.
•  Facebook  I joined Facebook because that is the medium my kids prefer to communicate the stuff of their lives. Face it: I like Facebook!  It can be trite, it can be banal.  But I do like the way I can check in my friends overseas, see pictures of my grandson, eavesdrop on clever repartee and see small segments of friends’ lives.  It eats time like Godzilla eats women.  (does Godzilla eat women?  I really don’t know!)
•  Movies and DVDs  I love Netflix.  It allows me to be more deliberate in my viewing (I detest roaming the aisles of Blockbuster wondering what to watch) and gives me access to films which are out of the mainstream, particularly indies and foreign films.  I find it really helps to dovetail our movies with our studies.  In the winter we get one-at-a-time unlimited; in the summer we switch to the $4.99 plan. 
•  Telephone  We have Caller ID but still take blocked calls.  Getting on the National Do Not Call list was the best phone decision we’ve had.  We also have Call Waiting, but it serves to tell us someone else tried to call.  I call back after the current phone call is completed.  We decide to take or not take a call during dinner on a case-by-case basis. 
•  Magazines  I’ve become more suspicious of general magazines.  We take World and Cooking Light.  There are several I would enjoy but their ephemeral nature and my to-be-read pile push me toward books.
•  Newspaper  If I lived in a metropolitan area, I could very easily see myself immersed in the daily reading of the paper.  The ephemeral nature applies here, too. Our local paper lets me know who died and what’s on sale and can be read in ten minutes. 
•  Television  If I wasn’t married to my husband this would be a problem.  If it didn’t take up so much time, I could lose myself in the baseball season.  I really hate being in homes where the TV is on during every waking hour.  I cringe at the thought of TV being the default noise in the home. 
•  Radio  I enjoy streaming classical stations on the internet.  I could devote hours to Pandora or  When we take car trips we usually listen to a bit of talk radio. 
•  Cell Phone  It’s become a badge of honor, a matter of pride to see how long we can go without getting one.  The great thing about this medium, unlike Facebook, is that I can connect with people with cell phones without needing one myself.  I can think of a dozen great applications for cell phones, they just don’t apply to our family.  If we had a daughter driving, she would have a cell phone faster than you can say Verizon Wireless. 

I don’t expect your list to remotely resemble mine.  But I do believe it is a good thing to think over the reasons why you do or don’t use the technology available to us.  Inventory and evaluate.  One thing is clear to me.  If I don’t want to be distracted, I need to turn the computer off.  We use the computer for school, but there is much we can do before we turn it on.  I lose/loose my focus too easily with it. 

There are many spin-offs of this discussion.  How important is it to have a pulse on popular culture?  Is it necessary to read best-sellers and watch top shows in order to have “talking points” with our neighbors?  Where is the balance?