Reclaiming the Conversation

The Art of Communication by Dr. Aimee Weinstein

Researcher, M.I.T. Professor and writer Sherry Turkle recently reported in her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, that 89% of people admit to taking their phones out during social situations and 82% of people think it’s wrong to do it. She claims that we, Americans, have had enough of our moment with technology and the time has come to take back and re-value our face-to-face interactions. However, Turkle does admit to one huge problem that stands in the way of her plan: people under the age of twenty-five have no idea how to hold an actual, face-to-face conversation.

We see a lot of students who seem to have lost the art of having a real conversation. As a mother myself, I notice my teenagers squirming when I force them to speak with their voices rather than their fingers, whether it be via text, email or social media. I listen as students express a preference for emailing their teachers rather than going in and having a real conversation with them to iron out an issue.

But I don’t think all is lost and I don’t think that the kids are beyond repair. What it takes is modeling and teaching, but also a great deal of reflection.

In the novel Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953 by Ray Bradbury, the main character laments the burning of the books and the professor, a relic in the time of the story, tells him that reading became passé when people stopped wanting to think and starting wanting instant and constant entertainment, found in the nineteen fifties in the newly invented television. Bradbury was ahead of his time in writing the future. Also in the fifties, feminist and writer Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote in Gift from the Sea about people taking the time from their busy lives to replenish themselves with simple thought before moving on to and through the tasks of the day. Both authors, in different ways, contend that self-knowledge and the ability to be self-reflective aid in a person’s ability to think and share ideas with the world.

In speaking with kids across the board – from middle school through college – they admit to sometimes preferring online communication to face-to-face interaction, but they do understand the value of asking for help and speaking to teachers in person. Kids want to be able to speak to friends and colleagues, so maybe now is the time to capitalize on their desires. Our kids can’t learn if we don’t teach them. Parents have to take that responsibility and start making time in their schedules to speak to their children with their own devices put away. We can’t blame the kids if the parents don’t follow the rules either.

This is what we have to express to our kids – it’s okay to unplug; it’s okay to sit quietly and think; it’s good to gather up stores of ideas to share with others. Indeed, it might be the only authentic way to connect with each other for if we do not have time to read and think, then we can’t know ourselves and thereby know how to give of ourselves. Turkle goes as far as to say that if we can’t teach our kids to value and appreciate some time spent alone then we are setting them up for a lifetime of loneliness.

If we as parents try to keep our phones away during dinner and ask our kids pointed questions – beyond the “how was your day” generics – we might find that the kids emulate our interested posture. Take time for yourself, take time for your family and show your kids the value of that time as you talk and share. Who knows? You might even get some eye contact from them.