We have the world at our fingertips. With the Internet. With our phones. We are connected to everything — and yet we’re growing disconnected from what counts: Instead of having deep, meaningful face-to-face conversations, we text, email and chat online. And when we do talk face to face, we’re often scanning or glancing at our phones or other devices. We are less present with others. We are less present with ourselves.
There’s even the word “phubbing” in the dictionary now. “It means maintaining eye contact while texting,” writes sociologist and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, Ph.D, in her newest book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. “My students tell me they do it all the time and that it’s not that hard.”
In the book, Turkle shares the many ways we’re becoming disconnected. For instance, college students observe the “rule of three,” as some call it. “When you are with a group at dinner you have to check that at least three people have their heads up from their phones before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone.”
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of “Wait, what?” Conversation is disjointed and focuses on light topics, writes Turkle.
She also writes about parents who regularly use their cell phones when they’re with their kids. One father checks his email when giving his daughter a bath. He knows he shouldn’t be turning to his phone, but he finds bath time boring.
Turkle writes about being contacted by the dean of a middle school in upstate New York. She told Turkle: “Students don’t seem to be making friendships as before. They make acquaintances, but their connections seem superficial.”
Like the college students above, these younger students also are sitting in the dining hall buried in their phones. The teachers say it’s a struggle to get kids to talk to each other in class (and to meet with faculty). When they do talk, they talk about what’s on their phones. This new conversation doesn’t seem to be teaching kids empathy. “These students seem to understand each other less,” Turkle writes.
Face-to-face conversation is vital. According to Turkle, it’s “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.”
Turkle doesn’t suggest we drop our devices. Rather, she suggests we become more mindful of how we use technology. “So, my argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation,” she writes.
Below are some of the guideposts Turkle suggests in Reclaiming Conversation. These guideposts give us a place to start — for listening to each other and for listening to ourselves.
Appreciate the power of your phone.
Don’t underestimate the pivotal role your phone plays in your life. It’s so much more than an accessory. “It’s a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are,” Turkle writes. In fact, just having a phone around — it doesn’t need to be turned on — changes the trajectory of conversations and hinders empathic connection.
Turkle notes that some of the most important conversations we have are with ourselves. In order to listen to yourself, it’s essential to slow down. Because normally we don’t. We’re more accustomed to the lightning speed of the Internet, which creates the expectation that we’ll get an immediate answer to our questions. To meet that expectation, we ask simpler questions. “We end up dumbing down our communications and this makes it harder to approach complex problems.”
Create sacred spaces.
Leave devices off the table during meals. Leave them at home on your walks. Don’t use them in the car. If you have kids, let them know that this isn’t a punishment. Rather, it’s a reflection of your values and priorities — to stay meaningfully connected; to focus on real, interruption-free conversations; and to savor solitude and self-reflection.
Adhere to the 7-minute rule.
A college junior suggested this to Turkle, because it takes 7 minutes — at minimum — to see how a conversation is going to go. “The rule is that you have to let it unfold and not go to your phone before those seven minutes pass,” she writes. Let any long pauses or boring moments simply be.
According to Turkle, this is good advice in general. For instance, we can view boredom as an opportunity to find interesting things within ourselves. We can daydream.
Plus, remind yourself: “It is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other. Digital communication can lead us to an edited life. We should not forget that an unedited life is also worth living.”
Don’t let technology rule your actions.
The successful people Turkle has talked to don’t try to achieve inbox zero. Instead, they carve out specific times for the most important emails. They “never let an inbox set their agenda,” she writes.
Don’t be afraid to respond to a request by saying that you need to think about it. According to Turkle, “To respond to an email by saying ‘I’m thinking’ says that you value reflection and you don’t let yourself be rushed just because technology can rush you.”
Technology isn’t terrible. And we aren’t doomed by using it. But it’s vital to make space for face-to-face conversations. A lot of space. It’s vital to be fully present without our devices. We need face-to-face conversations in all their richness and messiness. We need them because, as Turkle reminds us above, they’re the most human thing we do.
Who can you have a face-to-face conversation with today (without your cell phone in hand or on the table)?
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out Turkle’s illuminating TED talk called “Connected, but alone?” from 2012.
Texting photo available from Shutterstock