These days we communicate as much as possible through email and text. We justify this on the basis of efficiency. The idea seems to be that, since we can edit our messages, we can be more “ourselves” and make sure we say things “just right.” We now interact in the same manner face-to-face: we say something, and then sit back and wait for the response. We utter statements and talk around each other, rather than with each other. Actually, we mostly talk about ourselves.
This makes conversation more superficial, shriveling our empathy and feeling of connection — we increasingly fail to hear each other’s voices, read each other’s body language, or see each other’s facial expressions. We not only lose out on insights into the lives of others, but into our own as well.
Good conversation should be allowed time and space for thought, for lulls, for repetition and elucidation. It should be allowed to stop and start, without interruptions and with cellphones firmly turned off. In a conversation we should be all attention, actively listening to one’s companions.
Many people today shy away from talking with those they disagree with. They don’t like conflict, or having their beliefs challenged, prefering to interact with people who confirm their preconceived notions. But some of the best conversations are civil debates on important ideas and issues. By engaging with those with whom we disagree, we end up growing and examining our own ideas more closely, even if we don’t ultimately change our minds. This is particularly a problem in the United States, where the two political tribes seldom converse with one another (I am ashamed to say I am guilty of this as well. Ed.)
Some of the most memorable moments of our lives revolve around our conversations: the conversation you had with your girlfriend when you both realized you were falling in love; the conversation you had with a mentor who helped crystallize what areer to pursue; the conversation you had with your daughter when you realized she had truly become an adult.
Epicurus knew that face-to-face conversations could be entertaining, edifying, and satisfying, opportunities for both learning and mentorship, helping people to discover things about others, and about themselves. Conversations could spark transformative realizations, even revelations. He spent hours in his famous garden holding conversations with all manner of people, educating himself about human nature and honing his ideas. He was arguably the greatest conversationalist of ancient times. We should try to emulate him. (inspired by “Reclaiming Conversation”, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, some of whose language I have used for this posting)