I started a Meetup Group awhile back called Humans in Conversation. I advertised it as a group where we’d practice conversational skills as we humans have quit engaging in conversation and are losing the knack for it. There was lots of interest but only one person ever really showed up. We decided to be friends, and I closed the group. Conversation has lost its shine to the glimmer of technology.
I have friends in other parts of the country whose voices I have not heard in years. I know everything that is going on in their lives – or at least what is presented on social media – but we have not had a conversation at all. I hunger for it. I ask my friends to Skype or Facetime with me or call me, but most never do. It’s just so much easier to text or post on social media. But it feels empty to me.
Sherry Turkle is an MIT psychologist, and she studies how our world has changed in regard to conversation. You can read her article on Saving the Lost Art of Conversation for a window into her studies. But I don’t have to do a study to know that conversations are severely lacking in my life. And it makes me feel very lonely. I hunger for long conversations with lulls and pauses and moments of intimate connection. I have a few friends who take the time to have conversations, but most just seem to want to keep up with me on Facebook or my blog.
When I first started writing this blog, I had an inordinate amount of male followers. It was odd because I thought my main audience would be midlife women. I asked a few of the men why they would be so interested in this blog, and they said it felt like I was sitting right there talking to them. They said that they often felt the same way I did, but they didn’t know how to put it in words. My writing helped them describe their inner condition. They hungered for intimate conversation. A blog or social media or even texting is one way. Two people may be participating, but there is no instantaneous give and take that hasn’t been “cleaned up” by the other party.
In a conversation, people grapple with words. We stumble over our sentences. Our thoughts and words tumble out and dance in a way that is real and raw and sometimes uncomfortable. But, in a live conversation, I learn. I am energized. A conversation is a journey into at least two inner worlds. In some cases, our conversation may uncover some feeling or event that has never been brought into the open before. A conversation is not merely an exchange of ideas. It is a living, breathing thing. It spikes my energy, my compassion and sometimes even my soul. It is in a conversation that we connect heart-to-heart.
I get frustrated with online dating because all people want to do is text. And when you send snippets of information and thoughts to a complete stranger, they have no context as to who you are or what you mean. Inevitably, it goes off the rails because something is said and taken the wrong way. Since you probably have never even spoken with each other as a human being, it’s hard to get it back on track. The interaction is between two soulless beings shooting words back and forth on a machine. I find it hard even to think of them as a person until I meet them.
I’m not surprised that we have become so divided as a society. We had rules and norms in place for conversation where we didn’t discuss politics and religion. Instead of having conversations and grounding our relationships in the person, we post rants on social media taking stances. So, people become connected because they have the same stance. And since we don’t really know each other as individuals outside of social media, there is no investment to converse. And there’s certainly no magic of conversation to help us learn from each other and soften our views and our hearts.
I used to call friends to ask for support or drop by their houses to check on them. Now, people just disappear from social media when they are down. Who wants to go on there and see everyone living their best life when your heart is down in the dumps? The social media world is a whitewashed world where it looks like everybody else is living the dream. The reality is we all have struggles and sadness and grief. Happiness and sadness have a natural ebb and flow. It is in the context of conversation that we provide support and process emotions. Without it, we are left alone in a world full of acquaintances. I’m not sure how we are ever going to heal our rifts without it.
I truly miss conversation. Ten years ago, I’d go into a coffee shop and talk to strangers. Often, we’d both come away the better for it. Now, everyone is head down on their computers or phones. The same thing happens in work meetings. Networking has to be scheduled, and relationships are difficult to casually build. The days of walking in a meeting and asking someone about their kids or their vacation or their lives are sadly gone. Now, they are busy with email, so I just start checking my phone. And we are both lonelier for it.