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.
The 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).
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!