As we progress in to a world dominated by technology and devices, we have lost the ability to hold a conversation.
Being a professional in the hospitality industry, the entire premise of my job revolves around interactions with guests and colleagues. There is always something to talk about and at times guests will spend several minutes chatting away when they stop by my desk. This morning, for example, a guest pointed out that it was a big day for news. Topics of discussion included the recently docked Carnival Triumph cruise ship, the meteor that hit Russia, Pistorius’ arrest for murder, and whether Malhotra’s absence will affect the Canucks’ performance.
One guest was happy with how long our conversation lasted, but then quietly mumbled that people are not as friendly as they used to be. She explained, “No one takes the time to talk to one another. Baristas at Starbucks don’t chat, no one speaks in lounges, and everyone is busy on their phones.” According to her, the advancement in technology has taken away an ability that set humans apart from the rest of the world’s species: the art of conversation. She recalled the good old days when sitting in the Air Canada lounge at the airport meant meeting other travelers and networking. Now they sit behind their laptops and do everything possible to avoid eye contact.
Last month BBC World Magazine posted an article asking readers if digital addiction clinics will be big in 2013. It states, “More and more of us are becoming addicted to the real-time stream so that we are losing the art of conversation and quiet reflection.” It goes on to say that as phone manufactures devise more methods to interrupt us, there may be a new revenue stream: Internet-free rural retreats, or a place where a person would go to relearn how to talk. Many kids and teenagers cannot read social cues and are instead fully engrossed in front of their screens, having grammatically incorrect chats via text or social media platforms.
Psychologists and sociologists have tried to identify a positive side to this story. They claim that this may actually be useful for the working class, where being tied to their screen could be a sign of increased productivity. However, the delivery of these results still requires basic social skills and careful tactical handing. Lack of a good conversation can lead to conflict and misunderstandings, which in turn reduces the quality of the work.
Some social venues like local cafes and restaurants are trying to introduce new concepts in order to encourage conversation, like a communion table. This creates an atmosphere where two people who have never met each other are now on one table and have the opportunity to talk. This method seems to work on certain demographics, but still ignores the fact that we carry our devices with us everywhere we go. There are communication classes offered in colleges and universities that focus on how to carry out a dialogue, but those too require voluntary action and cannot be enforced.
Milton Wright’s book, The Art of Conversation, published in 1936, states that “to really become a good conversationalist over the long term it is necessary to acquire the habit of conscientiously stocking your mind with facts and information and then forming opinions on the basis of that knowledge”. This is still applicable for today’s generation. One advantage of surrounding ourselves with social media and devices is that knowledge of every sort is always at our fingertips. We have the ability to constantly feed ourselves with new information that enhance our brain cells and allow us to form an opinion. Discussing that opinion is just the next step.
It almost seems as though there is a fear of conversation. Even as adults many of us do not start a dialogue, or respond when someone approaches us, due to pre-conceived notions and stereotypes. It is commonly seen in teenagers who sometimes find that being a keen conversationalist is the perfect set-up for bullying. Protecting the social status becomes more important than learning. The solution needs to begin at an even younger age, going back to the time when teachers would encourage students to get into groups and talk about a question raised in a book. Throughout my primary school years I was pushed to ask questions, read out loud, and find answers the hard way – the reference section in the library. Now we don’t need an encyclopedia to learn, but we definitely do need those skills to keep us out of digital rehab.
Luckily for me, my profession and my experiences growing up will never deter me from holding an intelligent conversation. Here’s hoping that the developing generation finds a way to break through the digital cycle and is able to appreciate the true meaning of social culture.