Risky conversations

Online life was associated with a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection.*
(Sherry Turkle)

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot LEARN, UNLEARN, and RELEARN.**
(Alvin Toffler)

We are learning not to meet face-to-face, replacing such personal encounters with texts and messages and emails.

It’s not simply about using different ways to communicate. Sherry Turkle describes this as a movement from conversation to connection.

Each of the technological alternatives to conversation comes with learnings for us. Perhaps if we look at what we lose through technology is a helpful way of seeing what we are learning. When we’re in the same room talking with one another there are so many things happening: we say things badly and have to correct ourselves, we stumble with our words and thoughts and wrestle them out sometimes, we see each others face and body expressions including the light in people’s eyes when they’re looking at us, there are pauses when we see each other thinking and silences when we’re not sure what to think, we hear ourselves saying words and ideas we haven’t heard before and they develop into new things, we see the lean of the person towards us as they listen.

All of these and more are lost when we’re texting or messaging. These same texts can be heavily edited to make sure they are correct, offering no opportunity for a thought to develop. Heinrich von Kleist pointed out that in conversation we can find ourselves being surprised by what we say and we get to experience,

the gradual completion of thoughts while speaking.^

We are learning not to have such surprises and experiences.

This kind of connection also makes possible the avoidance of boredom and anxiety by allowing us to go to someone, something, or somewhere else. This is another kind of learning. When we avoid the painful or negative emotions we are not developing our brains in a way that allows us to develops empathy or reflection towards ourselves or others. Clifford Nass reported,

negative emotions require more processing in parts of the brain.^^

Nass noticed that people that those who avoided negative emotions were slower to respond to others and to themselves.

Alvin Toffler‘s opening words provide us with hope, though. We are capable of unlearning what we have learnt, and relearning better ways. It is not about avoiding technology. Technology is part of our lives. It is about how to live in relationship to each more richly with technology.

Part of this is enjoying the risky conversations in which new things emerge from the to and fro of unpredictable conversation that happens when people meet each other in an undistracted way:

The thrill of “risky talk” comes from being in the presence of and in close connection to your listener.*

I cannot count the times in a conversation when I have found myself saying things I had not intended to say that help me to see something in a new way, sharing an idea that I hadn’t thought about before, connecting previously unrelated thoughts and ideas with another, doors appearing where before there were only walls.

These surprises never happen when I’m texting or emailing or messaging.

(*From Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation.)
(**Alvin Toffler, quoted in Sunni Brown’s The Doodle Revolution.)
(^Heinrich von Kleist, quoted in Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation.)
(^^Clifford Nass, quoted in Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation.)

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