"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Lost Art Of Communication–Is It Really In Danger?

Yet another academic has taken out her cudgel to hammer away at modern society, this time the erosion of personal, live communication at the hands of modern technology.  Sherry Turkle of MIT has published a new book, Alone Together, in which she laments the passage of ‘boring’ conversations, the ones that although they may not be full of humor, insights, or passion, serve as the glue of human relationships.

The leisurely dinner table conversation is a good example.  Pleasantries are exchanged, old chestnuts are trotted out, family jokes retold, experiences shared about trash pickup and the principal of the local elementary school are what keep us together as a social unit.  We look into each others’ eyes, read body language, and restate our love through story and anecdote.


Interpersonal communication is at risk in this new world of smartphone communications. The time-honored dental chair conversation between dentist and patient – your mouth rigged up to a jaw jack, he banging on about his parrots for half an hour may disappear as both of you are plugged into Spotify. 
The pastor who collars congregants on the way out of church to “share a few more words about Jesus” but who takes forever to get to the point may become a relic of the modern technological age. 

“George, how’s your long game?”, Pastor Heinz asked the owner of the Bridal Shop downtown who rarely came to church. “I hear you’ve got one helluva short game, but those drives are killing you.”

No one listened to Heinz because of his absolute inability to connect with his flock either collectively or individually, and his tortuous metaphors were the worst. 

“Jesus loves the long game”, the pastor went on, backing away from the snorted garlic-whisky breath of his congregant. “He knows that we are all short-sighted, chipping away at the ball, trying to get it in the hole, taking divots and adding to our score; but he knows that if we can hit the ball down the straight-and-narrow, we will always be on course for a par game.”

In a depersonalized world the Pastor Heinzes of the world will be goners, critics say. QR codes sending smartphone-using worshipers to religious sites will be posted throughout the church.  Websites will be featured on electronic displays above the altars after the list of psalms and hymns are deleted.


Once again, however, the Chicken Littles are wrong.  Everyone is talking– informal chats between colleagues at the coffee machine; whispered gossip in the ladies’ room; endless stories of South Beach by garrulous hairdressers; girly teenagers’ slamming dorky boys; playground trash talking; pick up chatter at singles bars; in-jokes at upscale restaurants; and talk of spreadsheets and the competition over lunch. It never stops.  These are not insignificant exchanges, people talking ‘at’ each other (a pet peeve of Turkle), but to each other – establishing status, turf, personality, individuality.


“I can’t, in restaurants, not watch families not talking to each other,” Turkle tells me. “In parks, I can’t not watch mothers not talking to their children. In streets, I can’t not watch mothers texting while they’re pushing their children.” (Megan Garber in The Atlantic 12.27.13)
Not so in tony neighborhoods where compulsive helicopter moms and snowplow parents are the rule not the exception.  They are constantly, incessantly talking to their children trying to get them to say their first words before eight months, string sentences together by the time they are one, and make logical sense before two.

Families are obsessively child-centered, hysterically worried that they are not paying enough attention to their children and creating early crises of self-esteem to go along with retarded intellectual development.  In these homes there is little space for adult conversation – only when Jonathan is put down – and at the workplace.  If these harried mothers prefer the computer screen, texting, and emails, there is good reason.  Peace and quiet.
The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.
This is nonsense.  Yes, the teenagers are silent and typing; but more than likely they are setting up their social life.  The smartphone makes this all so incredibly easy. GPS-enabled apps let them know who’s in the neighborhood; texting eliminates endless and pointless calling, and more efficiently coordinates groups.  Yelp and Urban Table provide instantaneous reviews of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops; Google Maps plots the fastest way to the café or club.  Teenagers are using their phones to be sure, but the real question is how are they using them.

The generation that Turkle slams is perhaps more plugged in socially than any other before.  Smartphones are social facilitators, tools to enhance interpersonal communication, not discourage it.

Turkle makes many a priori and often patronizing judgments about young people, assuming that they are enslaved by a dehumanizing technology, alienated from one-another, and self-excluding themselves from the real world.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Gen X and Gen Y are smarter than Turkle’s generation (she is 65), and have little use for the old-fashioned, formulaic, and idealistic notions of community and social solidarity. Not only can they multi-task (a remote impossibility back in the Dark Ages when Turkle grew up), but can easily balance electronic communication with face-to-face interaction.  It is not either or but both. Young people “talk at” each other for a purpose – to set he table for personal interaction.

There has been a lot of noise recently about the use of cell phones on flights.  Most people are rightly concerned that the cabin will turn into a barnyard of cackles, bellows, and moos.  Given the opportunity, people will prefer to talk than to read or think.  Surfing the web or texting for the five-hour flight to the Coast will never be enough.  There’s all that catching up to do with Molly, Grandma, and Bill from Kenyon.  The urge to communicate, to engage personally, and to be real hasn’t disappeared.  It simply has been redirected and re-engineered.
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.
Every few months a colleague of mine has a two-hour long phone conversation with his close friend who lives in New York.  In their busy lives they can find little time to actually make the short trip between cities; but keep close with our infrequent, but intimate catch-ups. They talk about everything – work, children, family fractures, gossip about friends, Israel, education, wine, and travel.  Both of them always pick up on personal cues. A change in tone or register.  A hesitation.  A particularly enthusiastic story. They read each other perfectly.

Many social conservatives like Turkle would have been appalled at the introduction of the telephone 100 years ago.  It would dehumanize and alienate individuals from their community.  It did no such thing, of course, and facilitated personal communication.  No more wasted trips to see Aunt Margie who was getting her hair done when a visitor dropped by.   No more empty round-trips to the notions ship because Millie the shopkeeper was home with her sick mother.  The phone enhanced interpersonal communication.


In the first days of the Internet, fathers began to email their daughters who had left home. Much of father-daughter time previously had been spent in familiar parent-child routines – predictable questions about courses, boyfriends, social activities, money, and the future.  On email, however, both father and daughter became adults. Fathers were no longer just fathers but close adult friends who shared stories, reflections, observations, and very personal feelings.  It was a watershed moment.  Another case of electronic communication bringing people closer, not splitting them apart.

Ah, opines Turkle, but things have changed:
The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.
Again, nonsense.  Twitter, for example, can be tailored to suit one’s individual tastes.  While there may be a lot of senseless banter in some people’s tweets, on thousands of others there is an exchange of ideas.  Facebook indeed has far too many posts on cats and dogs, but there are just as many highly personal and informative ones.  Users love to see pictures of the children of their former colleagues with whom they maintain a connection through social media.

FB friends post art works, archival photographs, quotes from literature, news of former colleagues. And the much-maligned selfie shares important information – what friends are doing, with whom, and where.


Once again it is patronizing to tar everyone with the same brush.  The young people of Gen X at Harvard and MIT (Turkle’s stomping grounds) are far from the selfie, showmanship crowd.  Yes, they shared a few pix of the bros at the brewery and some bashing jokes; but all in all this was a serious bunch. They were at home virtually online or actually in bed.

Garber and Turkle close with a smug observation about young customers in an Apple store:
I look around the store, packed with products that promise connection, and remark that it looks and feels like a temple. Turkle nods. She surveys the airy space, streaked with sunlight, bustling with people, and thunderous with the din of human voices. “Everybody’s talking,” she muses. “And nobody’s talking about anything except what’s on the machines.”
Of course the customers are talking about what’s on the machines.  That’s what they’re bloody well in the store for.  What else are they going to talk about? Relativity, Kant, environmentalism?  Apple’s canny store design is all about talking on the phone and talking about the phone.


To paraphrase the old real estate adage: Context, context, context. It shows insularity and preconception to toss all users of electronic media in one ignorant category.
So, there is no such thing as the lost art of communication. It, like everything else in this dynamic, fluid, ever-new country of ours, is simply morphing, changing, and restructuring. It is presumptuous to assume otherwise.

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