A book review: Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Reclaiming Conversation
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle

Last year, I took a year-long online class called A Simple Year that focused each month on a different topic and how to simplify and declutter that area of your life. There was a different person each month that provided articles on the topic as well as a webinar with Q&A.  One month’s topic was relationships and the writer that month suggested a book called Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle.  I myself was struggling with zoning out on Facebook, not being present in the moment when I was having conversations (Brad would say “Are you listening?”) and in general focusing more on what I’d say on Facebook to someone vs. what I was going to say to them in real life.  The book sounded intriguing.  I put a hold on it at the library and when it came in, I was excited to read it.  I found the book very informative and it gave me a greater understanding of how technology has changed the way we communicate with ourselves, with each other and with society as a whole. Many people turn their heads down toward their phones and away from communicating with others and emphasizing with them. But Ms. Turkle tell us that there is a way to reclaim conversation, use technology for the good and get back to a deeper connection with others.  The book taught me to be more intentional with the way I use technology in my own life.  I’d like to summarize some of the key points in the book, share what I’ve learned and what I’m doing going forward.

Ms. Turkle is a sociologist and psychologist that has spent 30 years studying people’s relationships with technology.  We are at an interesting time in our lives as people are engrossed with their devices and use them as a substitution for conversation.  She gives the stat that the average American checks his or her phone every six and a half minutes. I hope for many of you reading this, you are thinking – that is ridiculous, I don’t even come close.  Unfortunately, for me this rang true. Ms. Turkle says that the best way to reclaim conversation is to reclaim one’s attention.

She wrote about Henry David Thoreau who moved to a cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. People mistakenly thought he was a hermit who was trying to get away from talk.  However, his move was to live more ‘deliberately’ – away from the crush of random chatter.  He wasn’t trying to be completely alone and set up three chairs in his cabin – one for solitude, two for conversation and three for society as a visual aid. Ms. Turkle bases the rest of her book by looking at conversation in each of these three chairs.

One chair: Solitude 

With the increase of technology, we have lost the ability to just be, with no technology, and to let our mind wander.  So often, if we have a free moment as we are walking from one place to another or at a doctor’s office or a passenger in a vehicle, we instantly pull out our phones. Sometimes we do this to catch up as we are afraid we have missed something and sometimes, we are mindlessly looking up things.  We’ve lost the ability to let our minds wander, which is where creativity is often sparked and new ideas are formed.  I certainly have been very guilty of this.  However, one thing I haven’t let technology invade is my outdoor workouts.  When I’m on a run or a bike, I never have headphones in.  It’s one of the best times to let my mind wander, have conversations with myself and work through problems I’m dealing with at work or in relationships.  Ms. Turkle explains that it’s through solitude without technology that we are able to reclaim conversations with ourselves.  After reading this book, I’m trying to be more intentional about not picking up my phone on the first feeling of ‘boredom’ or I need to look something up (as I’ll often get distracted and look something else up and before I know it, I’ve spent 15 minutes on the internet looking at dog and cat videos). I’m also trying to read more. I used to be a vivacious reader but have found myself in the last 5-7 years not reading near the amount of books that I used to. It’s harder for me to concentrate and get through books as well as I don’t feel I have the time to read (this is a direct result of me choosing to spend time on my phone or thinking about my phone when I’m reading).  I’m learning to be more intentional about checking my Facebook and email at certain points in the evening and being focused on other things (making dinner with Brad, reading, taking a walk). I’m also trying to stop checking my phone past a certain point (shooting for 8pm) as I know I’ll check it first thing in the morning when I wake up.  We get up really early to work out (around 4:30am or 4:45am) and typically are in bed by 9:15pm or 9:30pm. This was getting pushed later and later because we’d get ready for bed around 9:00ish, start doing something on our phones and then in 30 or 45 minutes, we’d look up and it would be close to 10pm. I’m also intentionally not sleeping with my phone at my nightstand so there is no temptation to look ‘one last time’ before going to bed.  I’ve always turned off push notifications and email alerts, which helps with distractions.  I’m definitely a work in progress but am working toward living a more distraction-free life.

Two chairs: Conversation with others

Ms. Turkle focuses on how technology has disrupted our ability to interact and connect with others.  She talks about a generation that grew up on technology that has never learned how to empathize with others because they’ve lacked face-to-face conversation. It’s through face-to-face conversations that one learns how to read other’s reactions and body language.  How often can a text or email or Facebook status/comment get misinterpreted because it’s just words and lacks context?  When we turn toward technology to converse, we miss the opportunity to make a real connection with people.  She speaks about this a lot in the context of families, particularly those that have phones at the dinner table and/or do all of their communication through texting.  When our kids lived at the house, phones weren’t allowed at the dinner table. And although, we’ve definitely fallen prey to communicating through text with our kids now that they are out of the house, mainly because of schedules, Brad and I are trying to call the kids more and have an actual conversation with them.  We are also trying to be more present with our friends which means not having our devices around when we are in conversation or with others.  One thing we enjoy doing is having people over to our house for dinner. Sharing a meal, device-free, is a great opportunity to have real conversation with others and develop stronger connections.  So often, you’ll run into someone or visit them and think you are ‘caught up’ on their lives because you’ve seen their FB updates but then you realize you haven’t had an actual conversation with them in months or even years.  We are recognizing the importance of phone calls and face to face visits with others to truly develop relationships with them. We’ve had the opportunity to travel to Florida and Louisiana over the last few months to visit friends who had moved away from Missouri.  There were no amount of FB status updates and comments or text messages that would substitute for the hours of conversation we were able to share with them on our visit.

Three Chairs: Connection with society in education and the workplace

Ms. Turkle talks about the increase in online learning and how one loses the ability to have classroom discussions, interacting with classmates and professors in real-time, challenging one another’s assumptions and forcing yourself to see an issue from someone else’s point of view. Much of this is lost if you are in a learning environment where you never interact with anyone. Professors complain about students never coming to office hours because they grew up never knowing how to interact and have face-to-face conversations with others.  For me personally, my academic advisor, was my mentor in college. I’d often go to his office and have conversations with him outside of the classroom, getting advice on my career and life in general.  It saddens me that the relationship might be lost in the current generation.  Ms. Turkle also speaks how in the workplace, conversations have been lost.  So many people are working remotely, but she asks – ‘Is never having face-to-face conversation really best for a company?’  Employees and employers avoid face-to-face conversation and send emails instead, which can be misinterpreted and don’t allow for the brainstorming of ideas together.  She also speaks about the importance of unitasking – focusing on one thing at a time and getting it done and then moving on to the next thing. So often workers are trying to multitask and they end up not doing anything very well.  They feel like they always have to be on and answer every email immediately. Ms. Turkle speaks about the importance of getting together to have a conversation – talking through things with co-workers and sparking creativity in one another as you discuss ideas.

She gives some great advice on how to reclaim conversations and it revolves around being intentional in your life (our favorite topic! J).  Setting up boundaries for yourself so you don’t reach for the phone at the first sign of boredom but instead allow yourself unstructured time, away from technology, to let your mind wander.  She also suggests that families and friends can set up ‘rules’ that discourage technology during certain timeframes or circumstances.  You can also be intentional about calling a person up or, better yet, having a conversation with them in person.  One of the best way to invest in a friendship or relationship is to give that person your undivided attention and to spend time with them. Lastly, in educational systems and workplaces, Ms. Turkle encourages face to face interaction, discussions and collaboration with the person’s full attention on one another, distraction-free.

Ms. Turkle doesn’t say that technology, in and of itself, is bad. Technology can be quite wonderful and a way to bring people together. I can keep up with my two best friends that live hours and states away from me through Facetime and Skype.  Social media has allowed me to make connections with past friends I might never have reconnected with.  But if the connections never go past online connections than my connections never go very deep. For example, Facebook allowed me to reconnect with two friends from high school and my college roommate who live out in Denver.  When I realized that I was going to be out in Denver for a conference last summer, it allowed me to set up a get-together with each of them.  However, it wasn’t until I met them face-to-face and was able to spend an evening with them did we truly get to experience conversation and empathy with each other.  Use technology as a tool and aid not as a crutch.

I’m not the best book reviewer so I highly encourage you to read this on your own.  I hope you find that by being more intentional with technology and paying more attention by allowing yourself times of solitude and having actual conversations with others that you’ll find deeper connections with others and deeper meanings in your relationships.



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