The Case for Conversation

Mrs Anne Ingram, Deputy Principal (Students)

Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanising—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life. (Turkle, 2015)

Renowned media scholar Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is a worthwhile read and provides us with salient advice regarding our reliance on technology. At a time when we find ourselves searching for solutions in the great technology debate, Sherry Turkle explores how the irresistible pull of the online world and a flight from conversation is undermining our relationships, our creativity and our productivity. Sherry believes that engaging in face-to-face conversation can help us to regain lost ground.

It seems that everywhere we look, screens are present. Driving home from work one day recently, reflecting on Turkle’s book, I made a point of noticing people. At each set of traffic lights, along pavements and at each bus stop, people were on screens, engrossed in technology. In restaurants, families gather to share a meal, and as they wait for their order to be delivered, they reach for their phones. Screens have become the electronic babysitters of our toddlers. The pudgy hands of two-year-olds have become proficient at scrolling and punching at screens. We are distracted at our dinner tables, in our living rooms, at meetings and at social events. In schools, teachers wrestle with students’ devotion to their screens. We worry about our adolescents’ hyperconnectivity, their shortened attention spans, their inability to wait and the threat of digital media to their creativity, relationships and health. Parents struggle with the battle in their homes—trying to find the right balance of screen time, unsure how to control this digital tsunami that threatens to engulf. Living in a technological universe in which we appear to be always communicating, the real point of concern is that we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. We use our screens to connect but not to converse. Our phones and our screens are inhibiting the conversations that matter.

The case for conversation begins with an understanding of its importance in our everyday life. Humans are an intensely gregarious species, shaped by other people and craving social contacts. The importance of interacting with other people is evident for human cognition, development and wellbeing. Human-to-human interactions are extremely complex, especially because the interaction unfolds in time with an unpredictable trajectory, in diverse and ever-changing social settings. It is also clear that the dynamics of faces and bodies not only comprise a large set of complex sensory features, but our interpretations of them go far beyond the immediate information given.

The art of face-to-face conversation is a complex, rich and multi-dimensional pursuit that engages many areas of the brain’s neural pathways. It is an art form that needs to be modelled from an early age, and then be crafted through practice and experience. Conversation builds empathy, friendship, love and learning. Like life, conversation has its silences and boring bits. It can be tedious at times and thoughts and ideas may not always flow smoothly, but it is organic and unedited and we are seen in the moment for the complete people that we are. We allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. It is often in these moments, when we stumble and hesitate, that we reveal ourselves to each other. Empathy and intimacy flourish and social action gains strength.

Authentic conversations can teach so many things—the worth of our feelings, how to talk through these feelings, and how to understand and respect the feelings of others. Instead of promoting the value of authenticity, social media, in contrast, encourages performance. It can inhibit our inner dialogue, shifting our focus from reflection to self-presentation. In place of teaching the rewards of vulnerability, social media suggests that you put on your ‘best face’. In place of learning how to listen, we learn what goes into an effective broadcast. Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.

In every social encounter, we need to use the right tool for the job. Sometimes, face-to-face conversation is not the right tool, but in most cases, having the whole person before you is the best starting point. It provides the most information to decide which communication tools are required to move forward. Texting, chat and email have become favoured options, increasingly dominating our modern daily life, even if they might not be the best options, simply because of their convenience. They allow us to feel in control and we are not required to look, listen or reveal ourselves too much. In contrast, through genuine face-to-face conversations, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and exert less control, and it is then that our relationships, creativity and productivity thrive.

It makes sense to confront this reality: We are faced with technologies to which we are extremely vulnerable and we don’t always respect that fact. The path forward is to learn more about our vulnerabilities. Then, we can design technology and the environments in which we use them with these insights in mind. (Turkle, 2015)

Reclaiming conversation begins with reclaiming our attention, and in this way, we can then appreciate our vulnerabilities and look to ways that we can incorporate technology into our lives in a healthy balance. In 2011, when Sherry Turkle published Alone Together, a book critical of our inattention towards each other in our lives of eternal connection, she knew that she was describing an evolution of digital behaviours that most people, at that time, did not want to acknowledge. As a culture, at that time, we had become smitten with our technology. Now, only a few years later, the atmosphere has changed. I believe that we are ready to talk. We are looking for solutions. I believe that we recognise that we need things that social media inhibit and we are ready to reconsider the too simple enthusiasm of ‘the more connected we are, the better off we are.’ It is time to make course corrections.

In our families, we must create sacred spaces—the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and the car—that are device-free. We need to do the same thing at work for meeting spaces and classes. We need to plan for a future in which the design of our tools and our social surroundings encourages us to be our best, and considers our health and emotional wellbeing. The seduction of phones must be acknowledged and managed with great care, to ensure that we are dedicating our whole selves to those we care about. Whether a family chooses to create device-free sacred spaces at home or decides to cultivate daily habits of family conversation, children recognise a commitment to conversation, a commitment to family and a commitment to them. The rewards are rich.

Just as families need these protected spaces, so do schools, universities and workplaces. Increasingly, there is demand in learning institutions for study and gathering space that is Wi-Fi free. In offices, we can make space for conversations without digital connection that enables people to pay attention fully to each other.

The key to productivity and creativity is uni-tasking. In every domain of life, the ability to focus completely on one task and to engage with it in depth will result in increased performance and decreased stress. The myth of multitasking is now being more widely understood. Challenges to the ethos of multitasking have begun to emerge. Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible (Rosen, 2008). We must appreciate that multitasking comes with its own high—our brains crave the fast and unpredictable, the quick hit of the new. Unfortunately, when we multitask, the trade-off that we resign ourselves to is diminished performance. For our young generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. Given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant, intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural wellbeing. When people do their work only in the ‘interstices of their mind-wandering,’ with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom (Rosen, 2008).

So let us be challenged to embrace conversations, to diminish the digital, to take up more talk and delve into dialogue.

I believe that we are now more aware of the seriousness of our moment. I believe that we can begin to rethink our practices. When we do, we will come to the realisation that conversation is here to reclaim. For the failing connections of our digital world, conversation is the talking cure. (Turkle, 2015)



Hari, R., Henriksson,L., Malinen, S. and Parkkonen, L. (2015). Centrality of Social Interaction in Human Brain Function. Neuron Volume 88, Issue 1, 7 October 2015, Pages 181-193.

Rosen, C. (2008). The Myth of Multitasking. The New Atlantis. Retrieved from: www.TheNew (18 April 2018)

Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Press, New York.