Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To Converse

Those of us who were adults before the internet and wireless devices became woven into the basic fabric of our lives, have experienced the slow change in how people converse with each other. Increasingly no one has the undivided attention of the party they are conversing with - the devices and the steady beat of new information pulsing through them have everyone in their thrall. 
This FT article on the lost art of conversation  talks about the writer's experience at a workshop on "“How to have a conversation”. Turns out that there is no easy answer to the question. The observations participants make about "what has changed" are very interesting. The two I could most relate to - The Blackberry is the third person in conversations between two people ;  Google and Wikipedia have made it impossible to have a good old fashioned argument.
There was value in having an argument back and forth on a subject that neither party had complete knowledge of. You got to use common sense, knowledge of related subjects, general awareness of the world around you and learned the art of debate. Today disputes never go that far, Wikipedia will settle it for you in under thirty seconds and that topic is no longer available for discussion.

The only exception to the rule appears to be conversations about human relationships where there is no established authority on validity of feelings and emotions. So it is still possible for a group of women to dissect their love lives - share stories and understand their own experience in the context of the group's collective experience. The dearth of impersonal topics to chat about has made over-sharing private information almost essential in the interests of furthering a conversation. It is only in a such a social ecosystem that something like Facebook can work.
The fact that every question having one correct answer has been answered and is available a click away has shrunk the pool of conversation topics to a hopelessly narrow set of choices. There is not enough material available for us to master the art of conversation.

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