The Demise of Dialogue

According to studies, cell phone users consult their phone every 6½ minutes throughout the day. Every day.  This addictive behaviour disrupts focus during meetings, lectures, work or study time, and family meals. This demise of dialogue is harming us as humans.

You know what I’m talking about: You are with friends, your spouse, or your child and can’t stop yourself from constantly checking your mobile phone. It is like a reflex to whatever vibrates or lights up your little screen. Perhaps you’re oblivious (or in denial) to your own habits, but when your friend, spouse, or teenage child across the table keeps doing it, you may notice how disruptive it actually is.

Let’s not even go deeply into how severely such distracted behaviour affects pedestrian and driver safety on the roads. In British Columbia, 41.5 per cent of their average 2,700 pedestrian injuries and 60 road deaths per year are due to traffic signal disobedience. A European survey showed that 20 per cent of pedestrians were distracted by their mobile devices.

The compulsive behaviour that cell phone use has created is affecting our humanity, writes author Sherry Turkle in her latest bestselling book “Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age”. Turkle is a clinical psychologist and professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She has written several books on our relationship with technology and how it is affecting us.

She says that face to face conversation is where and how we develop our capacity for empathy. When we talk to someone in person we recognize their full humanity – and get to show ours. You know, seeing the nuances of emotion in someone’s face and their body language, and hearing their tone of voice in relation to what they’re telling us, or what we’re telling them. This is how empathy is formed. Disturbingly, Turkle states a recent study of college students of the smartphone generation, which shows a steep decline in their levels of empathy (as measured by standard psychological tests).

Conversation also carries some risk of boredom – something that smartphones have taught us most to fear – which is seen as a good thing though, as this is how we develop patience and imagination. The short-form language of texting also destroys good written communication. Its informal, and I find slapdash, style is being used for email messages now too, further diminishing young adults’ ability to write and spell correctly.

Turkle states that children also develop better, students learn better, and employees perform better and feel less stress when their mentors (i.e. parents, elders, teachers, managers) set good examples and make time for face-to-face interactions and communication. Eye contact during a conversation is therefore important, not just for babies and young children, whose connected mummies can often be seen paying more attention to their cell phones than their wee ones in the stroller.

Turkle’s book is essentially a call to action. Her good news is that empathy can be restored once you start changing your habits, and your communications skills can again be brought to the fore.

So learn to turn off and switch off every day. Instead of letting your mobile and entertainment devices (like laptop, TV, game consoles, mobile apps etc.) entertain you non-stop, make time to actually talk to someone face to face. Or take some quiet “me-time” and allow yourself to listen to your thoughts, and the world around you. You might come up with some great ideas!

 

Sources: Book reviews by Jonathan Franzen, New York Times, and Ronni Hendel-Giller, The Art Of magazine