As I zoom into the image and squint at it, I see the irony: every single person, with the sole exception of the oldest member of the family, is poring into their cellphone, texting, browsing or otherwise engrossed in their virtual worlds.
The very purpose of the get-together, to talk, laugh and revel in the warmth of companionship, is beaten and lost. Even the senior member of the family, perhaps left with no choice, is glued to another device in the room: the idiot box tuned in the front!
The reality captured by the image is very close to what happens in most homes in today’s world. Youths as well as those of the older generation have embraced the soulless fad of constantly scrolling through their smartphones and ignoring the people around in the process. The medium of human interaction has changed rapidly and the art of conversation is dwindling.
While humans has always been regarded as social beings who thrive on communication and companionship, it is paradoxical that conversations are fading among people. Make no mistake, our communication skills have drastically improved over the years and advanced technology has made sure everyone is merely a phone call or a message away at most times. However, there seems to be a noticeable drop in conversations among us.
Social media and public forums enable us to express ourselves, publicly or privately, with the aid of smartphone applications. The instant messaging facility and quick access to emails have made personal conversations elaborate and superfluous.
Texting has replaced talks over the telephone and email is used even when the situation warrants a face-to-face interaction. The need to express ourselves through WhatsApp and Facebook status messages hogs up our mind space.
In a recent New York Times article, author Sherry Turkle, who has been involved in researching digital culture and its effect on conversation, confirms that in a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, a whopping 89 % of cellphone owners said they had used their phones at the last social gathering they attended and 82 % adults felt that the way they used their phones in social settings affected conversations.
The Goldilocks effect
In addition, the internet age and the self-absorbed world we live in has given rise to an artificial need to appear informed and in control at all times. Texting and email applications come handy to meet this growing need. With the ability to delete, edit and re-draft our communications without hassle at the touch of a button, we swell in pride at our communication skills. Yet, we cross the street to avoid face-to-face conversations, as we are wary of the spontaneity and the risk of slip-ups.
Sherry, who is also a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, elucidates this scenario in her book Alone Together.
“People keep each other at a distance, in amounts they can control,” she writes. She calls the decision the Goldilocks Effect, which is based on the idea that something must fall within certain margins to be comfortable. Just as in the fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where a child, upon entering a house in the woods owned by three bears, chooses the food, chair and bed on the basis of what seems “just right”.
Neither too hot or too cold, too large or too small, too hard or too soft. Human interactions today are carried with the same rationale, Sherry says.
By doing so, it is perceived that people can be placed just right – neither too close nor too far – and communication can also be restricted to being just right – neither too simple nor too complex.
Benefits of conversation
The question now arises, are conversations necessary when texting meets the needs of precise communication? When all there is to know about what is going on around us can be accessed at a tap on the screen of our smartphones, what purpose do conversations really serve? With technological advances in a constantly connected global village, does lack of conversation result in a deprivation to human development and tainted human relationships?
Numerous studies and continual research on behavioural sciences and human progress reveal a strong and irreplaceable connection between conversation and development of the human race. Results prove that conversations indeed offer myriad benefits.
Conversations, being broad-based and different from formal dialogue, where communication is restrictive, offer greater scope for spontaneity and honest responses. This spontaneity can connect us to our inner selves and draw others to us in understanding. And as conversation entails listening to another’s views as well, empathy and patience are often imbibed from connecting with others. Talking freely with people around gives us better perspectives and takes our focus off the pressures of life.
Again, freely exchanging our opinions is often therapeutic and results in an increased secretion of endorphins, a chemical in the brain that leads to overall feelings of happiness and wellbeing. In a digitally wired environment, being hooked to our smartphones comes in the way of reaping these multifarious advantages that flow to us from simple conversations.
In a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp, led by psychologist Yalda T Uhls, it was found that after five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group.
On these findings, Turkle concludes, “What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanising thing that we do. Therefore, the lack of conversation compromises our ability to self-reflect, which is the bedrock of development for the human species.”
There is no doubting the fact that conversation, which is the most natural and effective mode of connecting with others, has also become a complex mode in today’s digital world. Yet it is something that can be relearnt and consciously practised by staying disconnected from our devices and staying connected to the real person in front of us.
It is time to shift the focus from habitual texting and rediscover the joy of a quiet conversation. This simple pleasure in the end will help us revive human bonds, foster understanding, garner wisdom and yes, truly honour the members at our family get-togethers, as we give our attention in an engaging conversation.
Make a plan to meet up with your friends, siblings or parents today. Turn off your phones for a couple of hours and open up to your loved ones.