Marilyn Heins

What is happening to human conversation? People today seem to communicate constantly, but they are talking to a screen, not a person. We make more eye contact with screens than we do with each other.

I have written about this before. Why again? Because it is getting worse. I wonder if the day will come when we will not recognize a face unless it is surrounded by a phone’s rectangular screen. No doubt someone will make a horror movie of this happening to the human race!

Recent sightings: Mother with screaming baby in stroller talking on her phone. A woman on a park bench nursing her baby and talking on the phone. Two ladies at lunch focused on their phones while waiting to be served. I guess using a phone and a salad fork at the same time is too much of a challenge? I never tried because at a restaurant my phone is always in my purse on vibrate. I know that it is possible to eat a burger in one hand while talking on a phone in the other because I saw a man at a counter in a noisy restaurant do it. What I don’t know is how the burger chomping sounded to the listener.

Smartphones arrived on the planet in the early 2000s and social media burst forth in the next several years that followed. These events have changed the way we live and interact. I can remember human pagers walking through a hotel lobby and doctors on call wearing pagers, gadgets that beeped.

I am not one who rails against technology. As a matter of fact, I love my smartphone and the internet. The speed and convenience are incredible. I love making a Facetime connection with a grandchild who lives far away. No one wants to go back to the old days.

But is this affecting us and our society? Psychologist Sherry Turkle thinks it is. “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.”

Turkle noted that we may be continually connected by technology but we are “alone together” whether in the same room or separated by an ocean. Many people wear earphone armor and thus protect themselves from conversation. She quotes a 16-year-old texter, “Someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

The self we present via technology can be edited or retouched while, “Human relationships are rich; they are messy and demanding.” Turkle reminds us that in conversation we pay attention to and tend to the other and points out that the word conversation derives from words that mean to move, together. Conversation is not instantaneous like an electronic connection. It moves more slowly and teaches us the patience of interaction.”

I was born long before the cellphone became ubiquitous. I learned the art of conversation the old-fashioned way first by listening to how adults talked in gatherings and then by participating. Conversation with others helped me learn how to think.

Let me reveal an old lady’s secret. I converse (silently, most of the time) and even argue with myself while writing a column. Does this work or that? When conversing I tell myself how to proceed and behave especially if I am confronted with an opposing opinion. What can I say that might convince the opposition? The first thing that comes to mind is often confrontational. Veto that. First mention a point of agreement.

Turkle points out that, “We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we are having them. We used to think ‘I have a feeling, I want to make a call.’ Now our impulse is, ‘I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.’” Turkle advises us to make space for conversation. Sacred space free of devices.

There is a lesson here for parents and grandparents. Let’s get involved in real live conversation with the young people from whose mouths come those wonderful things called words. Turn off the TV, the car radio, the cellphone and talk to each other.

The art of conversation takes some years to perfect. Start with asking young children questions that cannot be answered with one word and wait patiently for the answers. Revive the family dinner. Have “debate dinners” where one family member picks a topic and both sides of the issue are discussed. Try “book review dinners” where each family member presents a book recently read and tries to convince the others to read it.

Help the shy child converse by practicing and role-playing before a family gathering. Gently remind the talkative child to listen and not interrupt when Great-aunt Sally goes on and on. Sit visiting playmates down at the table for a snack and encourage them to turn off all gadgets and talk to each other — you may have to get them started with a question or topic.

We need a quiet environment for conversation. Today’s homes are noisy and noise is stressful. It used to be that the only non-human noise in a house came from a barking dog or a whistling tea kettle. Now everything beeps from appliances to toys to gadgets. Do all you can to reduce the decibels.

Most of us need quiet for our inner selves. The words “peace” and “quiet” go together for a reason. My pet peeves were a child leaving the room without turning off the TV and those inconsiderate people who played loud music at top volume. Pico Iyer suggests an “internet sabbath” when everyone turns off all their electronic connections from Friday night to Monday morning.

The absence of noise is a gift that family members can give to each other. Designated quiet hours like in a college dorm can work. Civil behaviors include using our indoor voices and fining those who scream, including the parents, of course. We live in a pretty uncivil world but maybe civility at home is attainable.

Conversation with words is a human trait that defines us. Let’s not let our wonderful ability to converse and connect with each other get rusty and unworkable.

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your questions on topics throughout the life cycle. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com