By Carolie Coffey, M.A. Sociologist
Conversation has always been a taken-for-granted feast of enjoyment for me. When I was a youngster I used to love listening to family conversations around the dinner table. When adult company would come to our home for an evening of visiting, I would sit at the top of the stairwell and listen to all their talk. I especially enjoyed hearing my father tell true and often funny stories about his life. I never seemed to tire of listening to the same stories over and over again.
Language is surely the most significant and unique aspect of being a human being face-to-face conversation is the other. When conversation takes place each person in that conversation sees the non-verbal facial and other physical expressions that reinforce the full meanings, both intellectual and emotional of the conversation.
We human beings acquire language and conversational skills from birth on, we must also develop our listening skills for conversations to become meaningfully complete. Language, conversation, and listening skills are all things that we have taken for granted for most all of the years we have lived on our planet.
Within the past twenty years or so that face-to-face conversation and even phone conversations, have begun to disappear. Digital technology has given us faster ways to communicate without having to hear a human voice, or see human emotions.
Social scientists are currently engaged in research as to the social impact of digital technology. According to these scientists, diminishing conversation has negatively impacted several very important processes that have, to date, filled our lives with profound, yet often unacknowledged, meaning. These processes include phenomena such as empathy, intimacy, identity, and community building, all of which require face-to-face conversation in order to become fully actualized.
Empathy is learned through the process of conversations whereby the words we are speaking and the non-verbal ways we are expressing ourselves reveal what we might be feeling at a given time. Sociologists and psychologists are telling us that their research shows empathy is measurably declining as members of society engage less and less in conversation. The same may be said about Intimacy. Intimacy is fostered through face-to-face interaction and conversation. In fact, these two things are virtually a requirement for true intimacy. Identity is established, maintained, changed over time, as the consequence of face-to-face interaction and conversation with significant others. Community Building quite obviously takes place as a consequence of people interacting and having conversations with one another.
Last but not least, according to MIT Professor of Sociology and Psychology, Sherry Turkle, many people who have grown up in the digital age report having feelings of vulnerability when engaging in conversation. They may feel they have less control over the way they want to “present” themselves to others. Research indicates that people today seem to feel less vulnerable when their interactions are mediated through the electronics of the computer and Smart phones, along with social media programs such as Facebook, Twitter, and text messages.
If, in fact, people today feel vulnerable when interacting and conversing with each other face-to-face, individuals might strive to overcome these feelings of vulnerability through the process of self-empowerment. This is likely to occur as individuals become more willing to reveal their authentic selves. Authenticity requires of us a willingness to be open, transparent, and real about who we are. People may become increasingly authentic if we have developed a strong sense of personal integrity. This would include honesty, trustworthiness, keeping one’s agreements with others, and a willingness to take personal responsibility for what one does and who one is. If an individual strives to acquire these three personal characteristics they will experience joy in sharing the exchange of conversation with others. Perhaps the most important part of human living is the gift of genuine friendship and love of fellow human beings…accompanied by one’s own kindness and compassion to all creatures, human and otherwise. Face-to-face interaction and conversation are required in order to manifest one’s true and full humanity.
Carolie Coffey, M.A. will be holding a two part workshop ‘Embracing Conversation’ at Cuesta College on Saturday, March 4 and March 11 from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Sherry Turkle, Penguin Press, 2015.
The Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good. Cecile Andrews, New Society Publishers, 2013.
The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups. Leonard Sax, MD, PH.D, Basic Books, 2016.