Have We Given Up on Conversation?

The other day, on the train, I was sitting next to two teenage girls who were talking with such shrieks in their voices that I thought, “why so loud?” Then I glanced over and saw that both were wearing earphones and had music playing. That is, they were talking over the music playing into their ears. They probably had no idea how loud they were.

Then I transferred to an express train and witnessed the same thing, all over again, with different teenagers. I suppose this is a trend.

But my complaint here is not about teenagers or technology. On a much larger scale we are giving up conversation: letting it be interrupted, drowned out, and compromised. Technology has something to do with it, but we ourselves are to blame for not defending our conversations more staunchly. The wish for a conversation can come across even as an affront: “I don’t mean to be rude, but I would like to talk with you.” For the sake of clarity and focus, I will consider one-on-one conversations only.

First of all, why are conversations important? They allow for more than the “exchange” of ideas, information, feelings, and experiences; through a conversation, you take another into yourself and are changed as a result. You hear things coming from a mind different from your own; not only the words but the gestures play a part. Nothing like this is possible in group discussions, which have their own purposes and possibilities.

The kind of conversation I describe above used to be a staple of my life. It is now a rarity. Why?

First, we have given in to the interruption. I remember the common practice (and etiquette) of returning to a conversation after it has been interrupted, of picking up right where it left off. Today that is considered not polite but brazen; one is expected to honor the interruption and let the conversation go. Broken off in mid-sentence? Oh, well! You would be a fool to resist that.

Second, we have come to exalt the group over the pair. Suppose you are in conversation with someone, and someone else comes along and joins in. Of course, even in the best of circumstances, one should be as gracious as possible: welcome the third person into the discussion for a little while, change the topic accordingly, and so on. Graciousness is one thing—but what I see today is indifference. Group discussions take over because no one acknowledges a loss in this. The group (or dreaded “team”) is the ultimate formation; few go against it or defend anything outside it.

Third, we are too nervous and jumpy to focus on dialogue. We think we might be missing out on some important email or other update. People can go only so long before checking their handheld devices. This is the issue that people often emphasize, but it’s part of a larger phenomenon.

Fourth, we distrust the desire for a true connection. The person who wants to be our friend must be lacking a “life.” The “normal” person is scattered, well-connected, and casual—and sophisticated enough to distrust the concept of sincerity. If there’s no such thing as a “good person” (or, for that matter, an “interesting person”), then those offering or seeking individual attention can be blithely dismissed.

Oh, lighten up! some will say. Have a bit of humor. It isn’t that bad if you can laugh. True, but the best wit comes from relation, from laughing with another about something or laughing at oneself with another. Take away the relation, and what wit is left? Some slapstick, maybe; some puns; some political humor; but not the deeply funny, not the convulsion of the soul.

What is the cause of all of this? There are many, but I would blame our acquiescence first and foremost. We do not protect our conversations. It’s easier and more stylish to let them slip away.

I say “we,” but I am divided. I both participate in this and resist it, as many others likely do. The challenge, then, is to gather up the resistance: to dare to speak with another person, just one, for a stretch of time.

Leave a comment


  1. Hideko Secrest

     /  May 10, 2015

    I agree with you in the main, and I especially deplore when two people are in a restaurant having an intimate dinner while gazing into their smartphones. On the other hand, my phone is now my calendar, notebook, camera, and road atlas. A few weeks back I was out to dinner with my boyfriend and we were discussing the next time we would get together (we have a long-distance relationship) and we whipped out our phones to consult our schedules. Afterwards, in horror, I realized what we looked like, sitting at an elegant table with delicious food, both staring intently at our phones. But I digress. You are right: the art of conversation is dying, especially among young people. My daughter fidgets with boredom if we prolong our dinner for conversation (I don’t allow electronics at the table). My son is the opposite: a contrarian who hates smartphones and refuses to own one. He also keeps his flipphone on silent in his backpack most of the time, so it’s impossible to contact him. But how to change society at large? I’m not sure we can.

    • Thank you, Hideko. Yes, it’s difficult not to look something up on the phone during conversation–be it a fact, a movie start time, or a calendar. This is different from checking messages, though it looks the same from the outside.

      Another thought. Many people see conversation in pragmatic terms: “What’s the point?” “What am I getting out of this?” “Are we finished?” There’s less patience for conversations that take their time and go this way and that. But this is nothing especially recent. It may not even have to do with handheld technology. In San Francisco, when I worked at a center for runaway and homeless teens, I was often among the staff who had to close up at night. Most, including myself, were eager to finish up and go home. But there was one older staff member, now a friend of many years, who loved to talk about the many questions and dilemmas that had come up during the day. To him, that was what it was all about: thinking about your work and not rushing through the complexities. Every time he began talking, I was torn; like the others, I wanted to get out of there, yet I was fascinated by what he had to say and wanted to respond. I usually ended up in long conversation with him and didn’t regret it. But there was clear tension between these two ways of life.

  1. Have We Given Up on Conversation? | Wester Middle School Gifted & Talented

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