Conversation: Easier said than done

Is conversation really dead? Sometimes it sure feels like it. By the time I made the switch from journalism to PR in the late 90s, email had become the de facto tool for virtually every 9-to-5 transaction. Long gone were the days where you had no choice but to pick up the phone – or walk down the hall – to get an answer to a question, or simply connect face-to-face to talk about work-related stuff.

If it’s true that conversation is dead, nowhere is it most evident than in the ubiquitous world of texting, Twitter, BBM and Facebook messaging. Why call when a quick text or post is more direct, safer, and less cumbersome? This is one of the big reasons that the little devices we all carry around have changed us forever.

Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. In an article published in the New York Times last year, she argued that this chronic “flight from conversation” has resulted in us hiding from one another, even as we are constantly connected. In other words, we are sacrificing conversation for mere connection.

Human relationships, Turkle argues, are rich, messy and demanding. And the more we move from conversation to mere connection – whether it’s through email, texting, Twitter or Facebook – the less we know how to actually navigate through simple human interactions like getting an explanation to an idea. Even picking up the phone can be a daunting task for many of us.

And so we hide behind emails and technology, going as far as timing the phone calls we do make so that we can leave a voice message instead of having an actual conversation. What is more worrisome is that all this avoiding each other may actually be turning us into liars and exaggerators.

A study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that the farther away people are from the person they were communicating with, the more likely they are to lie or exaggerate. The study found that people talking in email lied the most, people talking in instant messages lied the second most, and those in face-to-face conversations lied the least.

So what to do? Start by keeping it real: Look up from your smartphone, send out fewer emails, make eye contact, pick up the phone … have a conversation!

Sherry Turkle has a great idea, as presented in her 2011 talk at TEDxUIUC: if you like Casual Fridays, how about introducing Conversational Thursdays? Check out her very compelling talk here: