The Very Human, Very Important Gift of Conversation
I have written elsewhere on the insight I’ve gained about conversation from Sherry Turkle’s helpful book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. In this blog I want to quote her more extensively and encourage deeper reflection about conversation, something far more precious than just “the gift of gab.”
Turkle researches the effects of technology on people, especially their verbal interactions, as a professor of “the social studies of science and technology” at M.I.T. The tone of her book rebounds from alarm about the negative power of technology to hope for undoing harm through the restorative power of talk.
Consider, first, some of her concerns:
“We say we turn to our phones when we’re ‘bored.’ And we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment.” (4)
“We are so accustomed to being always connected that being alone seems like a problem technology should solve…Afraid of being alone, we struggle to pay attention to ourselves. And what suffers is our ability to pay attention to each other.” (10)
“Technology enchants; it makes us forget what we know about life.” (13)
“We have not assessed the full human consequences of digital media. We want to focus on its pleasures. Its problems have to do with unintended consequences.” (16)
But also appreciate her high value of conversation:
“Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life. But these days we find ways around conversation.” (3)
“When they work best, people don’t just speak but listen, both to others and to themselves. They allow themselves to be vulnerable. They are fully present and open to where things might go.” (9)
And her prescription for a cure strikes me as balanced:
“I’m not suggesting that we turn away from our devices. To the contrary, I’m suggesting that we look more closely at them to begin a more self-aware relationship with them.” (24)
“So, my argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation.” (25)
“It took generations to get nutrition labels on food; it took generations to get speed limits on roads and seat belts and air bags into cars. But food and transportation technology are safer because all of these are now in place. In the case of communications technology, we have just begun.” (56)
I can’t read Turkle for long without applying her wisdom to the tasks of evangelism and discipleship. Much evangelism occurs in one-on-one conversations, propelled by compassionate listening and expressed empathy. When we engage outsiders in conversation that points to the eternal, we’re urging them to venture into uncomfortable territory. For some, it’s completely unchartered. For many, it’s confusing, new, and disturbing. Anytime someone’s worldview begins to crumble, it’s easy for them to feel fear or anger or a host of other unwanted emotions.
We can serve them and, in some cases express profound love for them, if we create an environment of grace and acceptance. Peter told us to do this “with gentleness and respect.” Wouldn’t it contradict the very graciousness of our gospel message if we failed to do so?
Turkle offers some helpful specifics with this two-sided observation:
“Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of our online connections, we want immediate answers. In order to get them, we ask simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. And we become accustomed to a life of constant interruption.” (35)
I hope to write more about how her book has helped me think about and engage in redemptive conversations. At this point, I offer three suggestions:
- Occasionally, put your phone out of sight. Turkle’s research found “the mere presence of a phone on the table (even a phone tuned off) changes what people talk about.” (21)
- Pay careful attention to facial expression. What else is being “said” besides the words?
- Try developing the skill of delayed conversational gratification. (That’s my term, not Turkle’s). What I mean is this: In many conversations, the talking bounces back and forth like the ball in a ping-pong game. This limits depth. Instead, try to resist the temptation to add your “2 cents” after they speak. Ask them to elaborate or clarify or offer more insight behind what they just said. You’ll get your turn to say what you want later. (Well, maybe you won’t. That might be OK, right?)
I wonder how many people feel alienated and lonely in our constantly-connected, socially-networked world. Reclaiming conversation may alleviate that pain and introduce people to the One who began a conversation that will continue for all eternity.