We live in a technological world in which we are always communicating and yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. We turn away from each other and toward our phones. We are forever elsewhere. But to empathize, to grow, to love and be loved, to take the measure of ourselves or another, to fully understand and engage with the world around us, we must be in conversation. It is the most human – and humanizing – thing that we do.
As a psychotherapist, clinical trainer, workshop leader, and I hope empathic human being and loyal friend, I converse with people daily, often all day long. I treasure my solitary, reflective moments on a hike in wilderness, but I know I’m most deeply nourished by authentic conversations with other human beings and teach thousands of people every year to recover their resilience through the healing power of resonant conversations with others.
Sherry Turkle’s new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is a brilliantly written, well-researched exploration of the “flight from conversation” in our current culture and presents, concisely and heartfully, the costs and consequences us: unquestionable diminishment, especially in the younger generation, to speak, listen, understand, and care about who we and our fellow human beings are and what we feel.
Dr. Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has researched the psychology of people’s relationships with technology for 30 years. So the case she makes for the decline of conversation in our digital age is not merely her opinion; the research is solid and her analysis of the declining capacities for solitude, empathy, and engagement with the “messiness” of reality is careful and comprehensive. She addresses us the reader not just as users of digital technology but as role models for the upcoming generations.
Every new technology offers an opportunity to ask if it serves our human purposes. From there begins the work of making technology better serve these purposes. It took generations to get nutrition labels on food; it took generations to get speed limits on roads and seat belts and air bags into cars. But food and transportation technology are safe because all of these are now in place. In the case of communications technology, we have just begun.
Two key points:
1) Technology is NOT bad but it diminishes our sense of other things that are good; our capacities to savor solitude and tolerate boredom, to empathize with other people’s feelings; to engage with the “messiness” of life and people, and we may not even recognize that those capacities are fading. If the younger generation didn’t grow up with these experiences, they may not even perceive these diminishments as losses, or know what the heck we are talking about.
2) We can make choices about how we use (or don’t use) our technology that will protect and recover those capacities; Turkle offers very practical ideas for “reclaiming conversation.”
May these reflections and practical tools be useful to you and yours.
Such synchronicity: when I first began reading Turkle’s book, I found some of the statistics hard to believe:
Average American adults check their phones every six and a half minutes. There are now baby bouncers and potty seats that are manufactured with a slot to hold a digital device. A quarter of American teenagers are connected to a device within five minutes of waking up. Most teenagers send one hundred texts a day. Eighty percent sleep with their phones. Forty-four percent do not “unplug,” ever, not even in religious services or when playing a sport or exercising.
Then, the next morning, I met for the third time with a couple that wants help with communication skills and trust. Very typical issues and they are a wonderful couple to work with – both have good self-reflection skills and goodwill toward each other. Perhaps because I had just started reading Turkle’s book the night before, as we delved into the dynamics and impasses of their interactions, I thought to ask how much phone-free time they had in their average day. None. Zero. There was never a moment in their day when they didn’t have their phones turned on, within reach, ready to interrupt each other to take a call from somebody else. !!!
I could even remember enough of Turkle’s research to give them the gist. “What phones do to in-person conversations is a problem. Studies show that the mere presence of a phone on the table (even a phone turned off) changes what people talk about. If we think we might be interrupted, we keep conversation light, on topics of little controversy or consequence. And conversations with phones on the landscape block empathic connection. If two people are speaking and there is a phone on a nearby desk, each feels less connected to the other than when there is no phone present. Even a silent phone disconnects us.”
This couple is in their 50’s, married 20 years. They could remember their capacities to connect before they got “addicted” to their phones. So they agreed to the first homework assignment: to designate a time, 6:00pm-6:30pm when the husband first came home from work, that they would put their phones away (off, out of site) and talk to each other. And listen to each other. Radical. I’m posting this newsletter before I meet with them again; I’m incredibly curious to see the effect of this experiment. [See Exercises to Practice below for more suggestions.]
Turkle begins her exploration with the well-documented notion that “face-to-face conversation is 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….conversations where empathy and intimacy flourish and social action gains strength – these are the conversations in which the creative collaborations of education and business thrive.”
And that conversation has real power in our lives: “When conversations work best, people don’t just speak but listen, both to others and to themselves. They allow themselves to be vulnerable. They are fully present and open to where things might go.”
And Turkle states the impact of our digital technology quite succinctly: “The distraction, comfort, and efficiency [of technology] won’t allow conversation to do the work it can do….We are somehow more lonely than before, our children are less empathic than they should be for their age, and it seems nearly impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation at a family dinner.”
These conversations require time and space. “Among family and friends, among colleagues and lovers, we turn to our phones instead of each other. We may even begin to feel more at home in the world of our screens. We readily admit we would rather send an electronic message or mail than commit to a face-to-face meeting or a telephone call. We turn to our phones when we’re “bored.” And we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment. At class or at church or business meetings, we pay attention to what interests us and then when it doesn’t, we look to our devices to find something that does. Even children text each other rather than talk face-to-face with friends – or, for that matter, rather than daydream, where they can take time alone with their thoughts. It all adds up to a flight from conversation – at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”
And there’s more.
“Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of our online connections, we want immediate answers. In order to get them, we ask simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.”
To be fair, Turkle acknowledges the many benefits of our reliance on our digital communication: efficiency of texting and emailing, maintaining connections over long-distances and different time zones, the mobilization of social movements through websites.
But her contention is “it is time for us to consider how mobile technology, with all the wonders it brings, may get in the way of other things we hold dear – and how once we recognize this, we can take action. Technology enchants. It makes us forget what we know about life. We can both redesign technology and change how we bring it into our lives.”
Turkle organizes her solutions into three categories: 1) recovering our capacity for solitude and the depth of reflection and self-awareness it can bring – an authentic conversation with ourselves; 2) strengthening our capacities for empathy and emotional presence – resonant conversations with others; and 3) deepening our capacities to deal with the “messiness” of the real world and real relationships.
An example that addresses the first two: “In five days at a summer camp that bans all electronic devices, children show an increased capacity for empathy as measured by their ability to identify the feelings of others by looking at photographs and videos of people’s faces…What makes the biggest impression is time without a phone, what one boy calls ‘time where you have nothing to do but think quietly and talk to your friends.’ Another boy reflected on his new taste for silence: “Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it’s wonderful?’
Turkle doesn’t offload the failing connections of the digital world onto “other” people. She makes it clear: “To converse, you don’t just have to perform turn taking, you have to listen to someone else, to read their body, their voice, their tone, and their silences. You bring your concern and experience to bear, and you expect the same from others….It’s not enough to ask your children to put away their phones. You have to model this behavior and put away your phone….Reclaiming conversation begins with the acknowledgement that speaking and listening with attention are skills. They can be taught. They take practice, and that practice can start now, in your home, in a classroom, at a job.”
Recovering Comfort with Solitude and Tolerance of Boredom
“Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes. In one experiment, people were asked to sit quietly – without a phone or a book – for fifteen minutes. At the start of the experiment, they were also asked if they would consider administering electroshocks to themselves if they became bored. They said absolutely not: No matter what, shocking themselves would be out of the question. But after just six minutes alone, a good number of them were doing just that.
“These results are stunning, but in a way, not surprising. These days, we see that when people are alone at a stop sign or in the checkout line at the supermarket, they seem almost panicked and they reach for their phones. We are so accustomed to being always connected that being along seems like a problem technology should solve.”
And, as Turkle points out often, it’s not that technology is wrong or bad, but we might be missing out on something in our lives that we no longer know is missing.
“These days, so many people – adults and children – become anxious without a constant feed of online stimulation. In a quiet moment, they take out their phones, check their messages, send a text. They cannot tolerate time derisively termed “boring” or a “a lull.” But it is often when we hesitate, or stutter, or fall silent, that we reveal ourselves most to each other. And to ourselves.”
“Solitude does not necessarily mean being alone. It is a state of conscious retreat, a gathering of the self. The capacity for solitude makes relationships with others more authentic. Because you know who you are, you can see others for who they are, not for who you need them to be. So solitude enables richer conversation. But our current way of life undermines our capacity for solitude.”
“We have convinced ourselves that surfing the web is the same as daydreaming. That it provides the same space for self-reflection. It doesn’t.”
“We have to reconsider the value of the “boring bits” from which we flee. In work, love, and friendship, relationships of mutuality depend on listening to what might be boring to you but is of interest to someone else. In conversation, “lull” may be on its way to becoming something else. If a moment in a conversation is slow, there is no way to know when things will pick up except to stay with the conversation. People take time to think and then they think of something new.
“More generally, the experience of boredom is directly linked to creativity and innovation. Like anxiety, it can signal new learning. If we remain curious about our boredom, we can use it as a moment to step back and make a new connection. It offers a moment to reach out and speak a thought that will only emerge in connection with a listener.”
“But now we turn away from such reverie and connection. The multi-tasking we can do on our digital devices makes us feel good immediately. What our brains want is new input – fresh, stimulating, and social. Before technology allowed us to be anywhere anytime, conversation with other people was a big part of how we satisfied our brains’ need for stimulation. But now, through our devices, our brains are offered a continuous and endlessly diverting menu that requires less work.”
“So we move away from the slower pace, where you have to wait, listen, and let your mind go over things. We move away from the pace of human conversation. And so conversations without agenda, where you discover things as you go along, become harder for us. We haven’t stopped talking, but we opt out, often unconsciously, of the kind of conversation that requires full attention. Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”
“In our rush to connect, we flee solitude. In time, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves is diminished. If we don’t know who we are when we are alone, we turn to other people to support our sense of self. This makes it impossible to fully experience others as who they are. We take what we need from them in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.” [See Exercises to Practice below for suggestions for recovering our capacity to savor solitude and tolerate boredom.”]
Strengthening Empathy in the Face of Its Marked Decline, Even Disappearance
“In a recent study, pairs of college-aged friends were asked to communicate in four different ways: face-to-face conversation, video chat, audio chat, and online instant messaging. Then the degree of emotional bonding in these friendships was assessed both by asking how people felt and watching how they behaved toward each other. The results were clear: In-person conversation led to the most emotional connection and online messaging led to the least. The students had tried to “warm up” their digital messages by using emoticons, typing out the sounds of laughter (“Hahaha”), and using the forced urgency of TYPING IN ALL CAPS. But these techniques had not done the job. It is when we see each others’ faces and hear each others’ voices that we become more human to each other.”
[Another small life, real life example; this really happened while I was reading Turkle’s book. I borrow books from my local library; [I’m really ancient; I still read real books.] I went to the check-out desk to have the clerk check them out. In the middle of the process, I looked over at the self-check out digital reader and remember I could have checked out myself. I mentioned that to the librarian, and she responded, “Yes, but sometimes people just need to talk to each other. It how we’re human” Amen.]
An example from Turkle of when online conversation does not do the job:
“In this age of declining empathy, people indulge a preference to apologize by text. It has always been hard to sit down and say you’re sorry when you’ve made a mistake. Now we have alternatives that we find lest stressful: We can send a photo with an annotation, or we can send a text or an email. We don’t have to apologize to each other; we can type, “I’m sorry,” and hit send. But face-to-face, you get to see that you have hurt the other person. The other person gets to see that you are upset. It is this realization that triggers the beginning of forgiveness.
“None of this happens with “I’m sorry,” hit send.” At the moment of remorse, you export the feeling rather than allowing a moment of insight. You displace an inner conflict without processing it; you send the feeling off on its way. A face-to-face apology is an occasion to practice empathic skills. If you are penitent, you are called upon to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And if you’re the person receiving the apology, you, too, are asked to see things from the other side so that you can move toward empathy. In a digital connection, you can sidestep all this. So a lot is at stake when we move away from face-to-face apologies. If we don’t put children in the situations that teach empathy (and a face-to-face apology is one of these) it is not surprising that they have difficulty seeing the effects of their words on others.”
And a possible remedy:
“Parents can insist that their children’s apologies be done in person. One mother explains that her always-connected son, now thirteen, had a habit of canceling family plans by sending an email or text to announce his intentions. She has changed the rules. Now, if he wants to cancel a plan – say, dinner with his grandparents – he has to make a phone call to break the date.
“That real-time telephone call teaches that his proposed actions will affect others. His mother says, “He can hear how my mother made the roast chicken and it’s already in the oven. He can hear that his grandfather has already bought the syrup to make ice cream sundaes. In sum, he can hear that he is expected and that his presence will be missed.” She adds that since the new rules have gone into effect, there has rarely been a cancellation.”
Another example from Turkle’s research:
“A sixteen-year-old boy tells his mother that he has just received a text from his best friend. His friend’s father has died. He tells his mother that he has texted his friend to say he is sorry. His mother, almost uncomprehending, asks, “Why didn’t you call?” She is thinking about consolation. The boy says, “It isn’t my place to interrupt him. He’s too sad to talk on the phone.” The boy assumes that conversation is intrusive even at moments that beg for intimacy.” [See Exercises to Practice below for tools to strengthen empathy.]
Less Comfort with the Messiness of the Real World
“In virtual worlds, you can face challenging encounters – with scoundrels and wizards and spells – that you know for sure will work out in the end. Or you can die and be reborn. Real people, with their unpredictable ways, can seem difficult to contend with after one has spent a stretch in stimulation. Conversation seem like “hard work,” with many invitations, often treacherous, to imperfection, loss of control, and boredom.
“But human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding. When we clean them up with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiencies of mere connection. I fear that we forget the difference. And we forget that children who grow up in a world of digital devices don’t know that there is a difference or that things were ever different. Studies show that when children hear less adult talk, they talk less. If we turn toward our phones and away from our children, we will start them off with a deficit of which they will be unaware. It won’t be only about how much they talk. It will be about how much they understand the people they’re talking with.
“The emotional tone of social media is another possible source of trouble. When students go online, some of what appeals to them is that they meet a world of good news. Facebook, has no “thumbs-down.” You can feel disappointed if something you share doesn’t get the number of positive reactions you want, but you train yourself to post what will please.
“So, on social media, everyone learns to share the positive. If you spend a lot of time online – responding to positive emotions – you won’t get practice with the more complex processing that negative emotions require. Young people may learn the wrong lessons – that negative emotions are something that unsuccessful kids have rather than normal parts of life that need to be addressed and coped with, and that it is natural to allow distraction and interruption to take you away from other people.” [See Exercises to Practice below for tools to become more comfortable with the messiness of the real world.]
Turkle knows that technology is here to stay and has its own great benefits. She’s simply calling upon us to have a conversation, with ourselves and others, about the necessity of reclaiming conversation and protecting our capacities for self-reflection, empathy and engagement that are hallmarks of our humanity and gateway to resilience.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
Our passion for technology tempts us away from face-to-face conversation, but conversation is a cornerstone for empathy as well as for democracy; it sustains the best in education and in business it is good for the bottom line. We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere. At the dinner table, children compete with phones for their parents’ attention. Friends learn new strategies to keep conversations going as their peers raise and lower their eyes to check their phones. At work we retreat to our screens, although it is conversation at the water cooler that increases productivity.
* * * * *
It is a struggle to get children to talk to each other in class, to directly address each other. It is a struggle to get them to meet with faculty. And one teacher observes: “The students sit in the dining hall and look at their phones. When they share things together, what they are sharing is what is on their phones.” Is this the new conversation? If so it is not doing the work of the old conversation. As these teachers see it, the old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.
* * * * *
A young man in his senior year of high school makes things clear: “What’s wrong with conversation? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation! It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.”
* * * * *
“The other night I went out to dinner with my dad. And we were just having this conversation and I didn’t know the answer to something, like the director of a movie we had seen. And he automatically wanted to look it up on his phone. And I was like, “Daddy, stop Googling. I want to talk to you. I don’t care what the right answer is! I just want to talk to you.”
Computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Because, face-to-face, people ask for things that computers never do. Time with people teachers children how to be in a relationship, beginning with the ability to have a conversation. Practice in the empathic arts – learning to make eye contact, to listen, and to attend to others. Conversation is on the path toward the experience of intimacy, community, and communion. Reclaiming conversation is a step toward reclaiming our most fundamental human values.
* * * * *
I am describing more than a flight from conversation. This is a flight from the responsibilities of mentorship. Technology exchants, it makes us forget what we know about life. The new – any old new – becomes confused with progress. In our eagerness, we forget our responsibility to the new, to the generations that follow us. It is for us to pass on the most precious thing we know how to do: talking to the next generation about our experiences, our history; sharing what we think we did right and wrong.
* * * * *
By now, several “generations” of children have grown up expecting parents and caretakers to be only half there. Many parents text at breakfast and dinner, and parents and babysitters ignore children when they take them to playgrounds and parks. In these new silences at meals and a playtime, caretakers are not modeling the skills of relationship, which are the same as the skills of conversation.
* * * * *
In person, we have access to the messages carried in the face, the voice, and the body. You listen intently to another person and expect that he or she is listening to you; where a discussion can go off on a tangent and circle back; where something unexpected can be discovered about a person or an idea. Online, we settle for simpler fare: We get our efficiency and our chance to edit, but we learn to ask questions that a return email can answer.
We are living moments of more but lives of less.
* * * * *
These day there are college courses on conversation. The curriculum includes how to pay attention to someone on a date. How to disagree with someone politically. It is an acknowledgment that students are comfortable going to bed with each other but not talking to each other. They will know each other’s sexual preferences but not if their partner has a widowed father or an autistic sister. They may not even know if their partner has siblings at all.
* * * * *
These days, the first generation of children that grew up with smart-phones is about to or has recently graduated from college. Intelligent and creative, they are at the beginning of their careers, but employers report that they come to work with unexpected phobias and anxieties. They don’t know how to begin and end conversations. They have a hard time with eye contact. They say that talking on the telephone makes them anxious. It is worth asking a hard question: Are we unintentionally depriving our children of tools they need at the very moment they need them? Are we depriving them of skills that are crucial to friendship, creativity, love and work?
* * * * *
When people say they’re “addicted” to their phones, they are not only saying that they want what their phones provide. They are also saying that they don’t want what their phones allow them to avoid. Going to your phone makes it easier to avoid boredom or anxiety. But both of these may signal that you are learning something new, something alive and disruptive. You may be stretching yourself in a new direction. Boredom and anxiety are signs to attend more closely to things, not to turn away.
* * * * *
In conversations that could potentially take unexpected directions, people don’t always try to get things “right.” They learn to be surprised by the things they say. And to enjoy that experience – the gradual completion of thoughts while speaking. The best thoughts, in this view, can be almost unintelligible as they emerge; what matters most is risky, thrilling conversation as a crucible for discovery.
* * * * *
A child-raising truism comes to mind in my grandmothers’ voice: “Look at me when you speak to me.” We teach children the outward manifestations of full attention because we hope that by working backward from behavior we can get them to a more profound feeling state. This is the feeling state of attachment and empathic connection. We don’t ask children to use their words or to look at us to make them obedient. We want words to be associated with feelings. Eye contact is the most powerful path to human connection.
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
A college senior has a boy in her dorm room. They’re in bed together. But when he goes to the bathroom, she takes out her phone and goes on Tinder, an app were she can check out men in the area to might be interested in meeting – or more. She says, “I have no idea why I did this. I really like this guy. I want to date him, but I couldn’t help myself. Nothing was happening on Facebook; I didn’t have any new emails.” Lying there in bed, waiting for her lover to come out of the bathroom, she had hit one of life’s boring bits.
When I share this story with people under thirty, I usually get shrugs. This is how things are. A dull moment is never necessary. Ad you always want to know who is trying to reach you. Or who might be available to you. We want a constant stream of stimulation and expect to edit out life’s “boring bits.”
A young father, thirty-four, tells me that when he gives his two-year-old daughter a bath, he finds it boring. And he’s feeling guilty. Just a few nights earlier, instead of sitting patiently with her, talking and singing to her, as he did with his older children, he began to check email on his phone. And it wasn’t the first time. “I know I shouldn’t but I do,” he says. “That bath time should be a time for relaxing with my daughter. But I can’t do it. I’m on and off my phone the whole time. I find the downtime of her bath boring.”
In a very different setting, Senator John McCain found himself feeling restless on the floor of the Senate during hearings on Syria. So he played poker on his iPhone to escape the feeling. When a picture of his game got into the press, McCain tweeted a joke about being caught out. “Scandal! Caught playing iPhone game at 3+ hour Senate hearing – worst of all I lost!”
Escaping to something like video poker when you come to a moment of boredom has become the norm. But when senators are comfortable saying that going “elsewhere” is normal during a hearing on the crisis in Syria, it becomes harder to expect full attention from anyone in any situation, certainly in any classroom or meeting. This is unfortunate because studies show that open screens degrade the performance of everyone who can see them, their owners and everyone sitting around them.
* * * * *
Some businesses now explicitly screen applicants for an ability to converse. A vice-president at a large pharmaceutical company tells me her strategy for hiring new recruits. “It’s very simple,” she says. “I have a conversation with them.”
Most applicants are prepped for one conversation. And then at the end, I tell the potential recruits that their homework is to organize what we’ve discussed and from that make an agenda of interesting themes for our next conversation…hopefully tomorrow or the day following. They are stunned. They look like deer caught in the headlights. They don’t want to have another conversation. They were hoping for some follow-up emails.
* * * * *
A college senior doesn’t go to his professors’ office hours. He will correspond with his teachers only through email. The student explains that if he sees his professors in person, he could get something “wrong.” Even since ninth grade, when his preparations to go to an Ivy League college began in earnest, he and his parents have worked on his getting everything “right.” If he wasn’t getting enough playing time on a team, his father went in to see the coach. When his College Board scores weren’t high enough, he had personal tutors. He had no interest in science, but his high school guidance counselor decided that a summer program in neurobiology was what he needed to round out his college application. Now he is three years through that Ivy education and hoping for law school. He is still trying to get things rights. “When you talk in person, ” he says, “you are likely to make a slip.”
He thinks his no-office-hours policy is a reasonable strategy. He tells me that our culture has “zero tolerance” for making mistakes. If politicians make “slips,” it haunts them throughout their careers. And usually they make these mistakes while they are talking. He says, “I feel as though everyone in my generation wants to write things out – I certainly do – because then I can check it over and make sure it is okay. I don’t want to say a wrong thing.”
* * * * *
The classroom is a social space where students can see how thinking happens. College faculty are often shy about asking students to put away their devices in classrooms. Only a few years ago, most professors told me that they didn’t want to be their students’ “nannies,” that this “policing” job was not for them. But we have learned that a student with an open laptop will multitask in class. And we have learned that this will degrade the performance not only of the student with the open machine but of all the students around him or her. These days, faculty are less deferential. Many begin the semester by announcing a device-free classroom policy or specifically set aside class time of “tools down” conversation.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
If the problem is flight from conversation, then the solution is reclaiming conversation.
“Studying conversation suggests that it is time to rediscover an interest in the spontaneous. It suggest that it is time to rediscover an interest in the points of view of those with whom we disagree. And it suggests that we slow down enough to listen to them, one at a time.”
Turkle suggests not to turn away from our devices but to look more closely at them to – begin a more self-aware relationship with them. “You don’t have to give up your phone. But if you understand its profound effects on you, you can approach your phone with greater intention and choose to live differently with it.”
Many of Turkle’s proposed solutions necessitate spending less time on our devices, as I had suggested to my couple in therapy.
“Instead of doing your email as you push your daughter in her stroller, talk to her. Instead of putting a digital tablet in your son’s baby bouncer, read to him and chat about the book. Instead of a quick text if you find a conversation going stale, make an effort to engage your peers.”
And, as many others have suggested, “In our families we can create sacred spaces – the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the car – that are device-free. We can do the same thing for certain meeting spaces and classes. Corporations can create workplace teams built on face-to-face meetings and ask employees to not check their email after business hours. One manager begins her team’s meetings by having all laptops and cell phones put into a basket at the door. Managers can require employees to have at least one “smartphone-free” night during the business week. Take a technology time-outs in weekends and vacations.
Some more applications of from Turkle techno-time-outs:
Recovering Comfort with Solitude and Tolerance of Boredom
Children develop the capacity for solitude in the presence of an attentive other. Consider the silences that fall when you take a young boy on a quiet walk in nature. The child comes to feel increasingly aware of what it is to be along in nature, supported by being “with” someone who is introducing him to this experience. Gradually, the child takes walk alone. Or imagine a mother giving her two-year-old daughter a bath, allowing the girl’s reverie with her bath toys as she makes up stories and learns to be alone with her thoughts, all the while knowing her mother is present and available to here. Gradually, the bath, taken alone, is a time when the child is comfortable with her imagination. Attachment enables solitude.
Childhood boredom is a driver. It sparks imagination. It build up inner emotional resources. For the child psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott, a child’s capacity to be bored – closely linked to the child’s capacity to play contentedly alone while in the quiet presence of a parent – is a critical sign of psychological health. Negotiating boredom is a signal developmental achievement.
In our world of “I share, therefore I am” we are not primed to give solitude or boredom a chance. We can cultivate a different attitude, beginning with our children. We can give them time without electronic devices. And we can give the more time alone. The teachers who complain that parents see free time as their children’s enemy are pointing to something real. Children can’t develop the capacity for solitude if they don’t’ have the experience of being “bored” and then turning within rather than to a screen.
We need family conversations because of the work they do – beginning with what they teach children about themselves and how to get along with other people. To join in conversation is to imagine another mind, to empathize, and to enjoy gesture, humor, and irony in the medium of talk. As with language, the capacity to learn these human subtleties is innate. But their development depends on the environment in which a child is placed.
When adults listen during conversations, they show children how listening works. In family conversations, children learn that it is comforting and pleasurable to be heard and understood.
Family conversation is where children first learn to see other people as different from themselves and worthy of understanding. It is where children learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, often the shoes of a sibling.
It is in family conversations that children have the greatest chance of learning that what other people are saying (and how they are saying it) is the key to what they are feeling. And that this matters. So family conversations are a training ground for empathy. When an adult asks an upset child, “How are you feeling?” the adult can make it clear that anger and frustration are acceptable emotions; they are part of being a person. Upset feelings don’t have to be hidden or denied. What matters is what you do with them.
Family conversation is a place to learn that you can talk things out rather than act on your feelings, however strong. In this way, family conversation can work to inoculate children against bullying. Bullying is discourages when children can put themselves in the place of others and reflect on the impact of their actions.
The privacy of family conversation teachers children that part of our lives can be lived in a closed, protected circle. This is always a bit of a fiction but the idea of a protected family space does a lot of work. It means that relationships have boundaries you can count on. This make family conversation a place to let ideas grow without self-censorship. In the performative world of “I share, therefore I am,” family conversation is a space to be authentic. Family conversation also teaches that some things take time to sort thorough – quite a bit of time. And that it is possible to find this time because there are people who will take the time.
Relating to the Messiness of Real People and the Real World
Slow down. Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself. To have them, you have to learn to listen to your own voice. A first step is to slow down sufficiently to make this possible.
Protect your creativity. Take your time and take quiet time. Find your own agenda and keep your own pace. Don’t even try to empty your email inbox. Set aside specific times to deal with the most important messages but never let an inbox set your agenda.
Create sacred spaces for conversation. In the day-to-day, carve them out – no devices at dinner, in the kitchen, or in the car. Introduce this idea to children when they are young so that it doesn’t spring up as punitive but is set up as a baseline of family culture. Take a neighborhood walk without devices. Experiment with an evening or a weekend off the net as a regular part of your family routine.
Think of unitasking as the next big thing. Unitasking is key to productivity and creativity. In every domain of life, unitasking will increase performance and decrease stress. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.
But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and over what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high. Our brains crave the fast and unpredictable, the quick hit of the new. We know this is a human vulnerability. Unless we design our lives and technology to work around it, we resign ourselves to diminished performance.
Talk to people with whom you don’t agree. Conversation is inhibited as much by our prejudices as by our distractions. Begin by talking about how you see causes, reasons, values. Even a small amount of common ground can nurture a conversation.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle. New York: Penguin Press, 2015.
Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle.
New York: Basic Books, 2011.