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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The Vanishing Art of Conversation

There's an excellent post in today's "Art of Manliness" weblog called "The Power of Conversation".  The post offers up the idea that our tech has altered our conversation in ways that prevent real conversation.  I've noticed that in my own experience, especially since the early 90s as more and more people have gone online in a big way.

I grew up before texting, cell phones and blogging, but I embraced technology early, in large part because I could do all this communicating from home without a large expense for driving around places. As a 40 year veteran of the nonprofit wars, my funds for socializing have always been somewhat limited.

One problem, however, with conversation by social media. Twitter with its draconian limitation on the number of characters you may use and the rapid fire exchanges encouraged by social media which hides the majority of any post that's more than a few lines long, social media users are encouraged over time to communicated in an abbreviated style. Ultimately one winds up communicating in sound bites.

When you have to get it all into 140 characters, you tend toward sensational, slogans and advertising jingle type posts and reject arguments or even discussions that require a lot of explanation or detail. It's the conversational equivalent of slam, bam, thank you mam! There is little room in this sort of conversation for nuance and no room at all for body language, slips of the tongue or unconscious social cues of the sort that make in-person conversations so surprising.

Another problem with this type of communication is that it encourages a kind of verbal sparring style of talking, especially when you are exchanging text blocks with someone you may not agree with. As a rule, most of us dislike conflict as a rule. In public settings or private conversations, it can sometimes be difficult to disengage from a conversation without hearing something that challenges our opinions and beliefs or takes us out of our intellectual comfort zone.

In social media, it's easy to unfriend or block someone who says things we don't like. That's kind of unfortunate, because as we do that we soon find ourselves in an intellectual echo chamber from which we have banished any voice that challenges our comfortable belief system.

Some thing that's a good thing. These people join cults or become members of religions or political parties from which they exclude anything or anyone that might challenge their narrow ideology. In a way social media actually encourages people to bunch together with only those who reinforce their own ideas.

But that's not how we are designed to learn and grow intellectually or spiritually. Even God can bear to be questioned. It's significant that the premise of the oldest book of the Bible, The Book of Job, was about this very issue. Job didn't know why all the bad things were happening to him and he asked God for an explanation. Jobs friends, however, tried to shame him into NOT asking those questions. Instead they presumed to know the mind of God and to tell Job why he was being punished. In the end of Job, God offered no explanation to Job, but told him he wouldn't understand, but that he should trust him. He also had Job offering up sacrifices for his friends' sin of presuming to speak for God.

"By engaging with those with whom we disagree, we end up growing and examining our own ideas more closely, even if we don’t ultimately change our minds." say Brett and Kay McKay. This is why I seek out conversations with people with whom I disagree. It's cost me some readers who find longer articles like this particular Art of Manliness Article to be tedious and to avoid them.

Because our social media style discourages in-depth reading and thinking and leads us to avoid conversations with those we dislike, we become stunted in our ability to carry out deeper level reasoning. As a result, we make ourselves vulnerable to flimflam orators who tell us what we want to hear and we do not examine the orator's real positions any more deeply than can be perceived in the loud authoritative bellowing of a Hitler, a Stalin of for that matter, a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton. The social media-trained conversationalist instinctively shies away from someone like Ben Carson whose communication style is deeper and more nuanced and lacks the self-assured bombast of his chief rival in the race for president. Carson, a man who knows better than to think we know everything we need to know just now, forces us to think more deeply than we are comfortable thinking. The twitter society doesn't like to read more than 140 words at a time. 

I've decided to risk challenging the 140 character limit and write till I'm done with my thought. I may even start doing a video podcast, just so I can get in the voice inflection and the body language that backs up your own half of a good conversation.

I'm not going to do what a lot of self-appointed doomsayers do in this kind of post and condemn society, technology and everything else we can find that is suitable for demonizing. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our technology or in society. The fault is in ourselves. If we wish to save our brains for something more useful than as a counterweight for our couch potato butts, we need to stretch our ability to piece thoughts together that are longer than 140 characters.  Just saying.

So, if you have any thoughts on this subject, please write them out fully in the comments section below. I read them all, even and especially the long ones. Some of the best conversations I've had so far on social media have been with people who challenge my assumptions and are willing to allow me to challenge theirs. I think, that if we all did that, perhaps our beloved country would not be as divided as it is today.

Tom King (c) 2015

Photo by:  Thomas Szynkiewicz


Anonymous said...

Technology should be used as it can be. In other words, use text messages for short bits of information. You don't use a tex message to write a story of how your afternoon went. Call or send an e-mail for that (or even better, see them in person). Just because I have the ability to send "140 character limited" texts does not mean I don't use other mediums to send longer messages.

The first half of your article is criticizing technology. You are just using it wrong. If you use twitter or text messages as your only form of communication, then you have a problem. If you use it to send short notes or updates which have larger meaning behind them, then you are doing ok.

Tom King said...

I'm not criticizing technology. Technology is an unthinking behemoth without consciousness or conscience. It does not choose whether it is misused or not. I think technology is wonderful. What I'm trying to say is that, unless you are careful with how you use technology, technology can slowly and imperceptibly alter and prejudice a person toward what I call "sound byte" communication. I've noticed that many younger people, raised on Internet and computer-based telecommunications have developed a positive distaste for discourse that covers more than a single, strikingly obvious point at a time. Without face to face conversation with time to respond to facial cues and body language, the ability to perceive real nuance is undermined or lost altogether. This was more about being cautious with technology and using it to enhance real communication rather than one of those diatribes on the evils of the Internet. I love the Internet and it offers an opportunity for people to communicate over vast distances with people who both challenge and reinforce their own perceptions.

I agree with you that there is a place for tweets and short form communications which suggest deeper meaning or larger truths. The trouble comes when you never get beyond the suggestion to examine the issue fully. And that's the problem I'm seeing. People are too easily content with just the 140 characters. After all, why go deeper. Another tweet will be along in just a moment.

Not everyone does this. As you say, one can choose not to fall into that trap, but at the same time it's an easy trap to fall into.

That doesn't mean it's all bad. A lot of people use Facebook, Youtube and other social media to engage in quite involved debate and discussion. Not everybody takes on the heavier stuff, but I believe a lot more do than we think. I've had some seriously in-depth discussions with people who both agreed and disagreed with me. The conversations have been stimulating and educational.

Tom King