A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

Conversation
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Can we talk for a minute about talking?

It seems that there is an increasing deficiency in simply being able to hold a conversation. We’re good at the agreeable stuff. There’s a familiar trajectory to most smalltalk.  A little something about the weather. List a couple random things we’ve done in recent memory. Maybe thrown in a mention of something delicious or trendy we’ve eaten lately. Everybody loves food.

We can go a mile wide.

Bring up some witty social media post we just saw, pivot to the latest celebrity inanity, grab our phone and play that video everyone’s been passing around, get riled up about the big game on Sunday, swipe through photos of the cute pet that one person just got…

But it’s all an inch deep.

When was the last time you talked with someone about your greatest fears? How you really feel about your job and the work you wish you could do? The family struggles and drama you’re dealing with? What you think the most important things in life are? What’s hard about being in a relationship with the person you’re with? What you think about death, and what that means about life?

It’s probably been awhile, right?

Maybe you are supremely emotionally intelligent, perfectly comfortable with yourself and what you think about the world, and encounter no adversity in life. If so, you should probably get to publishing a book for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, most of our conversations in real life take the form of our digital communication: short snippets that float right at the surface, and do just about anything they can to skirt existential depth and vulnerability. A mile wide and an inch deep is right in our wheelhouse. Not too long. Not too personal. Awkward-free and friction-free. Plenty of ambiguity to leave room for plausible deniability.

Indeed, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, argues precisely that: our devices and our preference to communicate through them are fueling an inability to actually communicate and relate to one another.

Many families Turkle interviewed mentioned that they prefer to “fight by text,” rather than hashing it out audibly with some brutal honesty and struggling through anger and disagreement to find reconciliation.

Just the other night, my wife and I went out to eat and watched the couple at the table next to us utter maybe one or two sentences to each other before fixating on their respective phones for the remainder of the meal. I couldn’t help but wonder if they broke from toggling through endless apps to text each other every so often. Should we get an appetizer? How’s your dish? Dessert? Apparently making eye contact and actually talking was either too much work or deemed trivial to the whole dinner-date experience. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen.

Many of us have a hard time turning off our phone or keeping it out of sight even when we are in the middle of talking with other people face-to-face. We look for ways to make stealthy peeks at notifications that come in, and respond to them like a ventriloquist who learned to type without moving her fingers instead of talk without moving her lips.

But what’s the loss, right? Maybe you prefer to stay a mile wide and inch deep with just about everyone you know. It would be agony to go deeper.  I get it. As an introvert myself, I’ve been in more conversations than I can count where I felt like I was just trying to find the escape hatch and get home alone with a book on the couch as soon as possible.

And isn’t it a wonderful convenience that if the chatter with the people you’re with–the family at dinner, a random acquaintance you bump into on the sidewalk, a group of friends out late–turns uninteresting or unengaging, you can simply duck out into a digital conversation through text or social media? If worse comes to worst, you can even use the phone as a smokescreen to suggest that you need to end your in-person conversation. When you’re potentially always interruptible because of the phone in your pocket, you can feign interruption.

But as Turkle profoundly observes, with the loss of conversation comes an equivalent loss in empathy. We are losing the fundamental capacity to recognize the basic humanity in each other, and live together communally rather than individualistically and standoffish. “Conversation is on the path toward the experience of intimacy, community, and communion.” If we can’t figure out how to be fully present here, talking together–for even just a little while, with at least a few people close to us–our own existential and emotional foundation crumbles and disappears. We need to be in conversation with other people for our own well-being.

And not just the pleasantries of the weather and mentioning an uncontroversial current event or two. “Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding…” You surely know this already from your own life experiences. Being a person comes with risk, and you have to risk the messy and demanding to get to the richness. In conversation, you might say the wrong word or pronounce something strangely; your thoughts might come out in a jumble instead of like a perfectly edited and polished text that you read and re-read until you felt good about releasing it; you might accidentally reveal a guilty pleasure that others will find laughable; you might veer into sensitive territory–pain and worries, personal demons, past mistakes; you might say something that pisses off or hurts the other person. That’s why continually pushing through the messiness and the demands to cultivate empathy is so crucial.

Conversation is the verbal playground where we learn how to move and grow together. Sometimes it’s pure enjoyment and we feel like we could run around for hours. Other times we crash into each other, get tangled in a political or religious cargo net, or step knee-deep in some emotional or personal mud. But when we can see in someone else’s eyes their vulnerability and their uniqueness–their humanity–we come to understand their hopes, fears, and joys are much like our own. We begin to build greater trust, respect, patience, and support. We begin to build a real relationship. We can’t survive without each other–whether it’s the close intimacy of family and friends or the fleeting bonds of coworkers and acquaintances. A mile wide and an inch deep doesn’t get you there.

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