Get Caught Reading: Reclaiming Conversation

Not long ago, I read a fabulously informative book called Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle. Turkle’s work challenges the notion that “the more connected we are, the better off we are” by examining how technology and social websites have affected our conversations. Twitter and Facebook may appear to better connect us, but Turkle reveals what we lose when we primarily communicate across screens. Building off of the “three chairs” idea from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Reclaiming Conversation is a rewarding read full of thought-provoking ideas that advance her panacea for the modern world: “Conversation cures.” Let’s look at a few of the highlights.

One Chair for Solitude

For those of you unfamiliar with Thoreau’s Walden, the “three chairs” idea is simple. Thoreau had only three chairs in his cabin at Walden Pond. The single chair represents solitude, a time for Thoreau to be comfortably alone and have the opportunity for self-reflection. Turkle builds on this idea, stating that solitude allows us time for self-discovery:

In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours.

However, Turkle makes it clear that recent research has shown that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes. Being “bored” has suddenly become something that can cause panic and fear.

This is why devices and social media have thrived: we never have to be alone with our thoughts. And here is the problem that Turkle presents: if we’re afraid of being alone, “we struggle to pay attention to ourselves.” 

Turkle starts with this “first chair” because it is the most personal level. A flight from self-reflection is a flight from conversation, and vice versa. This section helped me ask myself some rather tough questions:

  • When was the last time I allowed myself to be bored?
  • How much time do I make for my own thoughts?
  • If I have trouble paying attention to myself, will I be able to pay attention to others?

Two Chairs for Friendship

The two chairs for friendship represent the intimacy and empathy that develop from conversation. Turkle acknowledges the complaints from younger generations on how face-to-face conversations with “real” people are stressful: “Real people, with their unpredictable ways, can seem difficult to contend with after one has spent a stretch in simulation.”

Seeing the stress that can come from an unscripted conversation, many people seek the safety of the friction-free, programmable worlds of the internet, where you can take the time to edit what you say and present your “best self.” What many forget, and what many forget to teach, Turkle claims, is the true power that face-to-face conversation has:

Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do.

When we speak to one another face to face and in real time, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to share, and to learn. This is our primary vehicle for understanding one another, for developing empathy.

The research Turkle presents supports what literature and philosophy have preached for a long time: empathy requires face-to-face conversation; it requires eye contact. When we have conversations with our nearest and dearest, we give ourselves an opportunity to experience what George Eliot called “the meeting eyes of love.” Reading this section, I found myself thinking about my own conversations with my friends and family:

  • When was the last time I had a really good conversation? Why was it good? What did I learn? How did I grow?
  • What conversations did I have when I was younger than helped me develop into the person I am today?
  • What steps do I take in my own life to pursue meaningful conversations? To develop empathy?

Three Chairs for Society

This section of the book focuses on the importance of community and group discussion but also spends a lot of time pointing out all the research against multitasking. If you’re like me, you’ve probably thought that being able to multitask is not only desirable but also mandatory in today’s workforce. Well, it turns out that multitasking is a myth: we don’t multitask, we split-task. Doing multiple things at the same time further divides our attention:

Multitasking will not bring greater value. You will feel you are achieving more and more as you accomplish less and less.

When we feel this way, we sacrifice face-to-face conversations, meetings, and other forms of communication that seem less productive. Turkle presents several studies of how face-to-face conversations in school and the workplace help forge stronger connections between peers and promote a more efficient, prosperous environment. She says that it’s up to management and leaders to help create this culture and anticipates the following questions that challenge the benefits of face-to-face meetings over email and screen conversations.

This section of the book encouraged me to ask myself the following:

  • (How) Does my work promote a healthy culture of communication? How can I help?
  • How does conversation with my colleagues help me do my job better?
  • How does workplace conversation create a sense of community? Of purpose?

Conversation Cures

Having thoroughly enjoyed this book, I know I’ll be revisiting it frequently in the future for reminders and inspiration. Turkle’s research can prove a little disheartening at times, but she consistently—and optimistically—reminds us that “conversation cures.” Thoreau went to the woods “to live deliberately,” and I believe that living with intention will help us face the challenges of today’s world. We have the power to connect deeply with each other and ourselves by embracing solitude, developing empathy, and promoting community.