The Death of the Social Conversation
Every morning I pop my two-month-old son into the car and drive to a paved trail for a walk. The path runs alongside a meandering creek. At some points the creek warbles along, other times it takes on a congealed, marshy consistency. Ducks and birds abound, there are also people. My son, to his credit, spends most of the time sleeping; lulled to sleep by the steady vibrations of wheels and pavement.
Having a young child, I’m beginning to realize, is an impetus for conversation. Countless times, whether I am in the grocery store or out for a walk, people stop to stare at my son, ogling at his cuteness, and sharing a story of their own children. At first, it was jarring, how the normal frigidity in which we encounter strangers passing through our life, thaws at the sight of a child. It was on these morning walks where I noticed the demographics of these conversations. There is a good mix of people, from young mothers, to determined bicyclists, to two older women out for their daily walk. Unequivocally, most of my conversations are with people in their 40’s and older. When I pass a person my age or younger, the most I will get is a nod, or a grimace. The remaining encounters lack even a whisper of eye contact.
In the previous conversational article, we delved into the dearth of intelligent political conversation in society. Studies had shown that millennials were the most flagrant in their resistance to opposing or controversial ideas. It is not surprising that the generation that was raised on the internet and social media have this issue. Using social media, regardless of the medium, allows for a premeditation of all responses. Messages are prepared, analyzed and sent. As Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor states, “We are talking at each other, not talking to each other.”
With the ability to avoid a topic by simply closing a window or app, it makes it easier to avoid uncomfortable topics. With a in person conversation, a person is trapped. They may say the wrong thing, or broach an uncomfortable subject, or reveal too much of themselves, a personality that is likely different than the person they are trying to portray online. A face to face conversation is relatively uncontrolled, and to a generation full of increasing anxious people, that prospect is frightening.
Conversational quality has decreased. How often do we see a couple sitting at a restaurant, playing with their phones, rarely exchanging anything more than perfunctory words? This avoidance of conversation, of uncomfortable conversation, becomes crippling as the parties navigate the delicate dance of avoiding any topic that may bring about conflict. It comes as little surprise that one in every five millennials suffer from anxiety or depression, given the emotions involved in executing a simple conversation. The etiquette of conversation, the soil from where a great conversation grows, are decreasingly observed.
To be clear, a great conversation does not have to be about a great or important topic. One of the finest conversations I had with a friend was in a car, cruising through the middle of nowhere, without cell reception, having a passionate and humorous debate about what are the best foods that use a potato.
Anxiety lies in the dark reaches of the unknown. Confidence oft comes from experience. The most effective way of dealing with something uncomfortable, is to face it, and deprive it of its power. The image of two people, unable, unwilling and unknowing to speak to each other can be dispelled if we would all just set down our phones, and voyage through the hills and valleys of a conversation.