The Art of Conversation

The Soapbox family had Christmas dinner at a friend’s house this year. The guests included a former federal cabinet minister, an HR executive, two city planners, a philanthropist, a lawyer, an engineer, an animal lover and a legal assistant. They ranged in age from 28 to 70 something.

The conversation was lively; touching on Harper (boo) and Elon Musk (yay), the Charter of Rights and the Museum of Human Rights, Alberta’s double whammy of Notley and Trudeau, the economic down turn, the Orient Express and how to make good gravy. Everyone was engaged and engaging.

There wasn’t a cell phone or tablet in sight.

The quality of the conversation reinforced Sherry Turkle’s thesis that the world is a better place when we resist the siren call of our electronic devices and engage in the art of conversation.

The siren call

Sherry Turkle is a clinical psychologist at MIT. She says the over-use of electronic devices has created a generation that is easily distracted, easily bored and less responsive to others. Her research with college students of the smart phone generation shows a 40 percent decrease in the capacity for empathy.

Sadly, the root of the problem starts at home.

mobile-smartphones-pile-ss-1920The WiFi generation of parents prefer their iPhones and tablets to face to face interaction with their children. This undermines their ability to teach their children trust and self-esteem, let alone how to carry on a conversation in more than 20 second snippets.

Turkle reports that parents use bath time to check their email instead of giving their kids hershey kiss hairdos.  Baby bouncers come fully equipped with a slot for an iPad. Elementary schools download the year’s curriculum on tablets cutting down on face to face interaction. Children spend their lunch hours hunched over Facebook (apparently it’s OK to check your Facebook page if you’re in a group where three or more people are talking) and employees text and email each other instead of walking down the hall to sort out a problem.

Turkle says we must set aside electronic devices and create spaces for face to face communication if we want children to develop better, students to learn better and employees to perform better.

Ms Soapbox agrees. We had the luxury of raising the little Soapboxes in the pre-electronic devices era. We didn’t argue about putting away their smart phones, instead we debated whether they could watch an additional 5 minutes of TV (they were limited to 30 minutes each on week nights—their friends thought they lived on Alcatraz).

On special occasions we’d go out for breakfast (never dinner which took too long and increased the risk of a child flaming out before the bill arrived). We taught the children that conversations were like a tennis match. First I lob the ball to you, then you lob it back to me. When we ran out of topics to amuse a three year old and a five year old we’d draw connect-the-dot animals on paper napkins.

As the children matured we perfected the art of conversation over dinner (we always ate together) and in the car. It’s amazing what a child will tell you in a car; perhaps because they know you can’t strangle them when you’re flying down the freeway at 110 mph.

And now the children are adults. They can converse with anyone from a former cabinet minister to an elderly relative in poor health.

No devices? What?

Turkle isn’t asking us to throw our devices into the sea. (Thank God. The only time Ms Soapbox was without her iPhone was on the Orient Express. She thought she’d go berserk with no WiFi but quickly settled into the joy of reading a book without having to check her phone every 5 minutes for an important message from Buzzfeed).


Steve Jobs dines with Barack Obama

Turkle isn’t promoting new devices to free ourselves from our old devices by blocking everything.  Instead, she suggests we designate device-free zones like the kitchen, the dining room and the car to allow conversation to flourish without interruption. She points out that Mr iPhone himself, Steve Jobs, banished all electronic devices from the dinner table so his family could discuss books and history.

Which brings me back to Christmas dinner.

I hope you and your family and friends had many delightful conversations over Christmas dinner and you’re resting up so we can continue our Soapbox conversations in the New Year…

…and no, our on-line dialogue won’t hasten the demise of face to face conversation. From what I’ve seen, Soapbox readers have more than enough empathy and compassion to go around.

Have a very Happy New Year!


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29 Responses to The Art of Conversation

  1. Sounds like an interesting group. Our table had a lawyer, clinical psychologist, Dene from Sask, Cree from Alberta, refugee from Nigeria, businesswoman in consignment clothes and an student aspiring to environmental law. Great discussion too

    • Reboot: what a great group of people. It’s interesting how we make an effort to come together in times of celebration but are reluctant to do so on an ordinary weekend. Mr Soapbox and I made a joint New Year’s resolution–we’re going to reinstate The Dinner Party, not on a Downtown Abbey or June Cleaver scale (although Vintage dinner parties are all the rage now) but in a form that’s more manageable and relevant for today.

  2. ABCanuck says:

    If you have ever watched snippets of debate from The Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled and compared it to recent debates in Canada’s House of Commons you will have noticed a vast difference in the quality of the debate, conversation, and communication between members of both Houses and it is far from being in Canada’s favour.

    Canada’s politicians, especially recent ones, have abused the art, the privilege, the necessity, and the heavy responsibility of debate, conversation, and communication by endless repetition of pre-crafted statements, by avoiding answering questions directly, by distorting the truth if not actually lying, by changing topics completely, by not “accepting the premise of the question” and sitting down, and by responding with an attack on the questioning member, or even on one who had nothing to do with the original question. Such behaviour would never be tolerated in normal conversation between individuals, let alone around a table where “conviviality” and encouragement of and respect for different views and distribution of knowledge, wisdom, experience, wit, and humour is treasured and valued.

    • That’s an excellent point ABCanuck. The lack of quality in the debate is even more evidence when you read Hansard (an excruciating experience). The Wildrose is notorious for “red baiting” (it’s those damn CCF socialists who are ruining our lives) and the PCs are, for the most part, inarticulate (I’ve never understood a single thing Wayne Drysdale has said). To be fair, I must add that some ND cabinet ministers also need to improve but at least they don’t resort to misinformation and fear mongering.

  3. anonymous says:

    Happy solstice Ms Soapbox.

  4. You have some excellent points here! I cannot believe how rude some people (young and old) can be. Unless there is a crisis on your cell phone, I consider texting in a group of people you are supposed to either be talking to or listening to to be simply rude.

    • Linda, your point is reinforced by the photo I attached of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg having dinner with Barack Obama. If the president of the United States can make it through dinner without checking his cell phone, surely the rest of us can.

  5. Brent McFadyen says:

    Well I am glad there was the topic of ” how to make good gravy” this is truly important dinner conversation on Christmas Day. I watched “Murder on the Orient Express” boxing day and completed the whole series available on Netflix in the month of December.

    • Brent, our host made delicious gravy. Mr Soapbox tried his hand the next day. It was a flop. I’m frantically searching through my emails to find your secret recipe. On a different note, isn’t David Suchet the best Poirot ever???

      • Brent McFadyen says:

        No secret recipe, one tip brown the flour in a pan, add your flour paste while the stock and pan drippings are off the boil. Always have some “cheat ” handy like those gravy mixes. You need to boost flavour sometimes. Just a few hints there.

      • Thanks for this Brent, your suggestions come in the nick of time. We’ve made gravy twice more since The Art of Conerversation post. The first batch came out like meaty white sauce and the second batch was just blah. You know what they say, if at first you don’t succeed, give up. Just kidding, we’ll keep at it until we make something edible. 🙂

  6. Liane Sharkey says:

    Sounds like you had a very interesting and wonderful dinner – and I think making good gravy is always an important topic. However, not all of us have Christmas dinner, of course. At our Chanukah dinner, our topics were the Blue Jays and what could possibly happen now that management has been turned over from a passionate Canadian baseball guy to an American corporate stuffed shirt who doesn’t even know how to pronounce his own last name; what the best series on Netflix really is; who makes the best Sufganiyot (Chanukah donuts) in the city; and much talk about our new prime minister and all the hope and positive excitement he is engendering!

    • Liane, I was thinking about you when I wrote this post and am delighted to hear that your Chanukah dinner was also a success. I googled where to buy Sufganiyot in Calgary and came up with one bakery and Jelly Modern Donuts, hmmm.

      So tell me, what was the consensus on the best series on Netflix. Brent says he’s finished watching the Poirot series, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel with White Collar. We’re desperate.

      • Liane Sharkey says:

        We LOVED Bloodlines (deep, dark and a little violence, which I usually veto), and also can’t wait for the next season of Orange is the new Black. We also really enjoyed Master of None, recently, written and starring the American comedian (used to be on Parks and Recreation), Aziz Ansari. Of course, Netflix aside, the last season of Downton is coming soon, so I’m already warming up the box for that one….Also if you have Rogers and can get Shomi, we really loved Transparent, enormous critical success and quite excellent, and Mozart in the Jungle is very funny and worth watching but not to be taken seriously. Boy, it sure sounds as though we don’t do anything except watch TV around here…….

      • Thanks Liane. We’ve started watching Bloodlines (well done and very unsettling I thought). I’ll have to check out the others. Given the length of your list I think I’ll have to limit you to 30 minutes of TV on week nights 🙂

  7. Jim Lees says:

    Well said Susan. Device addicts are everywhere, and changing users’ mindset will be a huge challenge. I doubt that will happen, the devices will just become less obtrusive….
    All the best for 2016, and keep on soap boxing!

    • Jim, you’re right. The devices will become less obtrusive and also more hypnotic. Facebook recently bought Oculus VR for $2 billion. Oculus makes The Rift, a virtual reality headset. People love the idea of getting into their own little virtual world. I worry that parents will simply slap the gizmo on to their kids’ faces and the the next generation’s empathy scores, to say nothing about creativity and fine motor skills, will plummet. Not a good thing.

  8. ronmac says:

    The other side of the coin is that lots of people spend their days surrounded by TFI’s (total f—in’ idiots). For them electronic devices are their only link to the sanity of the outside world.

    Sometimes I think all this talk about device addiction and the “lack of empthy” is overstated. The guards in those Nazi death camps weren’t tweeting on their iphones.

    Are all these devices changing the way we live? Perhaps. But it’s nothing new. They were saying the same thing during the 1960’s with the arrival of television.

    My grandfather grew up in the horse and buggy era. By the time he died in the early 1970’s at the age of 94 they were walking on the moon. The amount of change he witnessed during his lifetime is mind boggling. Everything since has been bush league.

    • Good point ronmac. I’m certainly not against progress but we need to think about its consequences. I was listening to a podcast of and interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter on The Current. She served a two year term as Clinton’s assistant secretary of state and decided not to apply for a second term because one of her sons was falling apart. She argues that the first 5 years of a child’s life are critical for intellectual and emotional development and that parking them with low paid care givers isn’t helping. She didn’t get into the issue of giving them iPad babysitters but I’m sure this figures into the picture somehow. Having said that, your example made me think about my parents who grow up during WWII and still managed to become well balanced caring people.

  9. jvandervlugt says:

    Hello Susan. I loved your line “Hershey – kiss hairdo.” I immediately had a visual. I’m very happy that our children were in their late teens before they had a cell phone or FB account.

    If it wasnt for car rides I wouldnt know half the information I know about our youngest daughter who was usually tight-lipped about her social life for fear of me sabotaging it.

    We had a Christmas tradition when our girls were still home of my husband making a big breakfast–no cell phones invited. Also, whenever the girls are over for dinner or a visit the cell phone is left in the purse, or they’re grabbing my charger to recharge it.

    Last year my husband and I started a new tradition of going out for breakfast on New Year’s Day. Again, no cell phones invited, unless he and I are disputing the name of that certain actor who played in that movie with that actress. Then the cell phone will be retrieved to Google “that certain actor.”

    I hope you had a Merry Christmas. Looking forward to reading more of your posts in 2016.

    • Thanks Joanna. We have the same “no cell phones” policy at our place and break it for the same reason–when we can’t figure out who that guy is in that movie. In fact we had this exact discussion two nights ago…you know the guy, he was in that movie where the boat sank… Oh you mean Di Caprio from The Titanic. No no, the one we saw when we lived in Toronto. Toronto? Oh, The Poseidon Adventure? Yessss! That’s the one. So who was that guy? (I’ll leave it there just to see if anyone googles it :))

      • Liane Sharkey says:

        Poseideon Adventure, eh? Was it Gene Hackman. Roddy McDowell, Red Buttons, or Ernest Borgnine? They are all listed on that most useful of sites,!!

      • They are indeed. I don’t even have to check IMDB any more. I just ask one of my daughters whether she knows who X is and before I know it she looks it up on IMDB (as you did). I think it’s an OCD thing…we simply can’t bear to have this trivia question hanging out there unanswered. 🙂

  10. Carlos Beca says:

    New technology and society has always been a controversial subject but in my lifetime the smartphone has been one that I really noticed. It bothers me tremendously how people invaded the public airways with conversations that I sometimes cannot believe people would discuss in public. I find it very intrusive and people are not dealing with it in an appropriate way. My opinion. I have actually experienced changes in the relationships I have with certain people that have been altered because of smartphones. The problem is that those relationships have not changed for the better at all. I do think this technology is having a tremendous impact on society and the jury is out on whether we are going to profoundly regret it or not. I will not make my own judgement because I hate when people tag me as old or luddite when it is absolutely not the case. I just refuse to let my life be run by externalities without questioning. So far the worst is the concept of markets know it all. Smartphones a very close second.

    • Carlos, the funny thing about smartphones is that most people don’t use them as phones anymore, they’ve switched to texting, tweeting, facebooking and surfing the net. All this is fine and good provided it doesn’t negatively impact our ability to interact with living breathing human beings. As you said at the start of your comment, new technology and how it impacts society is always controversial, we need to exercise some level of discipline to ensure that we use it appropriately. Tough to do when Mark Zuckerberg et al hire teams of researchers to break down our resistance.

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