Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Halfway Conversations

Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and technology researcher, has a doomsday prediction about conversations: we don't have them anymore.

I have seen my student sit alone together, not looking up from their iphones and DSLs. I have resorted to cell phone games when a friend is sitting next to me because the conversation has stalled. Because of my many long-distance friendships, I rely on email and chat, and sometimes even facebook as a social medium. But I have also stayed up until midnight talking to my boyfriend about love and loss and family when we had both resolved to go to sleep early. Conversation is not dead. The dirty little secret is that just as face to face communication does not necessarily indicate deep conversation, digital distance does not necessarily prevent deep conversations.

One conversation I have had with my boyfriend is about the art of writing letters. I argue with him that email is just as good. In any case, we agree that taking the time to write down an extended response takes more thought than the average conversation. You spend more time figuring out how you feel, trying to say what you mean, and crafting the right words. Of course it's a one-sided conversation at first, but it's a respectful one. The reader gets to practice the lost art of perusal, and then send a similarly thoughtful reply. Personally, when I respond to emails, I make sure to respond to every point the other person makes, sometimes even copy-pasting their words into my draft box to remember what they wrote. Though the written word lacks tone and and expression of voice, and emails and letters don't give immediate feedback, I believe the benefits can outweigh the cons. *The same is true of chatting. I have known chats that have lagged because the other party had 16 chat boxes open, because I or the other party were cerfing the internet, and because the other party wandered off to Ralphs without letting me know. However, these instances are rare (maybe not the cerfing part). However, I do view chat as a real conversational medium and try to give timely responses. Even if I take time to grade papers while I chat, I always come back to the conversation (how many other "live" conversations take place when one party is paying the bills?). My friends and I have a habit of letting the other person know when we leave the chat, even if only for a few minutes. The cons of lack of voice and tone still apply. In addition, sometimes due to a lack of rhythm in the conversation, perhaps brought on by slow typing, the texts of two parties overlap. This also happens in live conversations as well though. The benefits of chat are that it does emulate the back and forth of real conversation. It is also very convenient. As long as both parties are online, it's like having someone in the room with you (in terms of availability for conversation).

I have to admit I have converted to facebook. I started checking it regularly for some practical reason--waiting for a reply for a message or a response on a post asking where I can get a whetstone (no luck yet). I got involved by liking my old friends' postings and posting on how and where to get a good gynecologist or a cheap massage. I started posting pictures and my boyfriend's friends like them. It's like . . . small talk. I didn't know I could do small talk. By the way, introverts are more likely to be socially successful online, because the textual medium does give them time for reflection and it is relatively anonymous and it takes out the social anxiety factor. Of course this can go to extremes, but online relationships are not necessarily fake relationships.

I have had so many inane live conversations. Like I mentioned before, I can't do small talk. It drives me insane, but this is what makes up a majority of people's chatter. I like one-on-one conversations. I don't like gossip. I don't care about my colleague's comment on what China has done this time. I don't care about how my other colleague went to a cat village. I try to be polite and respond, but I don't see how I'm supposed to engage in the conversation. I can't fake enthusiasm.

One example of repeated attempst involves my boyfriend's former FLU. They're still friends so we have had dinner together a couple of times. Every time I felt like she was just trying to elicit gossip about her former work place. We tried asking her about her work, her personal life, "So, I guess we should talk about boys and clothes." She deflected: "Oh yeah, do you still need to get new clothes?" Even my boyfriend found it weird how we avoided talking about her at all. Quite frankly, we didn't talk about us very much either. We talked about third parties (i.e. gossip), and they weren't even third parties we really cared about. Eventually, my boyfriend determined that we were just anti-matter that didn't know how to react to each other. Since FLU used to have actual conversations with my boyfriend, I suggested they have dinner alone.

Another example is of a former friend I have (that I have recently written off). I actually realized even before she moved out that we had little in common, although we had had some real conversations early on in the relationship, we didn't have enough shared interests to maintain that.

A final example is my best friend. Her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend got better for awhile, because they had more actual conversations online than they had in person. Then it deteriorated, because they discovered that they weren't compatible. My best friend's anger at her boyfriend had less time to dissipate when they couldn't go jogging or do sexual acts together. Though I am wary of long-distance relationships in general, I do agree with my boyfriend that there's the potential to get caught up in the minutia of every day, to fall into a routine and stop thinking about why you're with a person, and I personally believe that physical intimacy can overshadow a lack of emotional intimacy. Therefore, face to face conversation, while valuable, is not a panacea for being alone.


  1. 'Cerfing?' What is that? Do you mean surfing? ;-)

    I personally don't mind small talk. Sure, it is more shallow and allows you to keep a distance, but sometimes that's what I feel comfortable with. I don't want to talk to strangers about my innermost feelings. Plus I think it's kind of self-centered to just talk about yourself. I like discussing politics and religion and arguably more frivolous things like places to shop or what restaurants I like.

    1. I'm just being a nerd about the "cerfing." I learned that the act is named after someone named Cerf in an internet studies class.

      I think I'm getting better about small talk, but it's still not my favorite thing to do. Sometimes politics is interesting, but it's all that particular guy talks about, and he turns all conversations toward that track, so in a way it's also self-centered. What's weird about him and FLU and "friend" is that they not only don't seem to care about other people's lives, but they never talk about their own either. You can talk to these people, but it's difficult to be their friend.