Reclaiming conversation?

In one of my first forays into community building, I and two colleagues, supported a group of residents to come together for the first time. The meeting went well and when back at the office we enthusiastically shared our story of the meeting with our mentor. We even had photos of the afternoon. However it was on seeing these photos that our mentor raised an eyebrow. He asked what was out of place. It took a couple of moments before one of us pointed to a mobile phone lying very prominently on a table. 

It doesn’t seem so extraordinary when we stopped to think about it. Studies have shown the impact of mobile phones - even the mere presence of a phone on the table, even if turned off, changes what people talk about. If we think we might be interrupted we keep conversations lighter and less controversial. If two people are speaking and a phone is present they feel less connected to each other than when a phone is not present. 

Researchers have highlighted the worrying impact of the new presence of digital communications. Children are now growing up expecting parents to only half be there. Multitasking is increasing, yet associated with depression, social anxiety and trouble reading human emotions. In the past twenty years we’ve seen a 40% decline in the markers for empathy among college students, most of that occurring in the last 10 years. As Sherry Turkle in her thought-provoking book "Reclaiming Conversation, The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” writes; “It’s not an accessory. It’s a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are...Even a silent phone disconnects us." 

In the short term online communication makes us feel more in charge of our time and self-presentation, but at what cost? Being comfortable with our vulnerabilities is central to happiness yet social media encourages us to show little vulnerability. Those using social media the most, have the most difficulty reading emotions, including their own. William Deresiewicz, quoted in Turkle, says we have moved from living in communities to making efforts to feel as though we are living in them. In other words moved from being in a community to having a sense of community. 

This blog isn’t an appeal to do away with our phones, but rather a call for us to review and rethink our relationship with our devices. The great news is, that face-to-face conversation leads to greater self-esteem and ability to deal with others - in Turkle’s words “conversation cures.”  Indeed Turkle’s book is an affirmation of community building; after all, much of our work is about bringing people together, to create spaces where people can talk, imagine and act, to build more welcoming communities. 

So how can we create ‘sacred’ spaces for conversation, like device-free dinners or mobile-free meetings? How can we return to unitasking rather than multitasking? What else can we do to reclaim conversation? Let’s start that conversation now!

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