We Have To Talk

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Henri Matisse created many paintings titled 'The Conversation'. This, from 2012, is of the artist with his wife, Amélie. [Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia].
Henri Matisse created many paintings titled ‘The Conversation’. This, from 2012, is of the artist with his wife, Amélie. [Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia].
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not so much a book of fantastic adventures as a book of conversations (and pictures). It’s right there, in the first paragraph: “What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” Lewis Carroll and his illustrator John Tenniel delivered just that, a magical masterpiece of conversations and images. A contemporary reviewer said it would “belong to all the generations to come until the language becomes obsolete.” Six generations later, the language shows no sign of obsolescence, but the same cannot be said of conversations if the great oracle at Google is correct. One million hits for “the death of conversation,” it proclaims, listing a gloomy parade of studies and essays stretching back many years.

“Every visit to California convinces me that the digital revolution is over, by which I mean it is won. Everyone is connected. The New York Times has declared the death of conversation,” Simon Jenkins grumbled in The Guardian, seven years ago. Is it true, and if it is, who cares? That sounds like the start of an interesting discussion. Is daily conversation of any value and if it fades away, who’s to say the time saved can’t be better used? Robert Frost thought that “half the world is people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.”

What commenters seem to decry about the death of conversation are not the essential dialogues that keep societies running – diplomatic and parliamentary debate, peace talks, economic or scientific discussions. The conversations they mourn are fuzzier – chats in cafes or beside metaphorical water coolers; animated arguments in bars about sports (men); discussions about books we pretend to read so we can meet and gossip (women); the mind games of flirts and lovers.

The most common note of regret emerges at the sight of a couple sitting in a restaurant, their eyes fixed on their phones, tapping messages into some other digital world. Sad! They don’t smile and talk to each other, they are not here, but elsewhere, not together but alone. But has anything changed? How short are our memories of the pre-device age when you could see “sad” couples in any cafe or restaurant, eating in stony silence. Had they nothing left to say? Or were they enjoying that cozy mutual silence which says, “we’re here, together, and we’re happy.” And let’s not exaggerate. Has anyone recently walked into a crowded cafe or bar and found it filled with silence? All those babbling people must be saying something, even if it’s about their Facebook friends or their phone’s battery life.

Conversation may not be dying but evolving, as we learn to manage both talk and technology. Sherry Turkle, an MIT media professor and author of Reclaiming Conversation, has noticed that her students can maintain eye contact with one person while texting someone else. (Is that even new? Has no one met a man or woman who can chat with their spouse while catching the eye of a secret lover across the room?) Turkle writes: “These people are alone together … a tribe of one.” It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young person in possession of 2,000 Facebook friends must be in want of one real one.

It’s not the number of conversations we ought to be worrying about, but their nature. Most conversations are likely to be empty and meaningless – but not necessarily pointless. Some can be lost opportunities, and yes, some can be dangerous.

King: Who are you talking to?
Alice: It’s a friend of mine – a Cheshire Cat: allow me to introduce it.
King: I don’t like the look of it at all: however, it may kiss my hand if it likes.
Cat: I’d rather not.
King: Don’t be impertinent. And don’t look at me like that!
Alice: A cat may look at a king; I’ve read that in some book, but I don’t remember where.
King: Well, it must be removed. [To the Queen] My dear! I wish you would have this cat removed!
Queen: Off with its head!

Old British wisdom used to hold that casual conversations with strangers should be limited to the weather and health. “Nice day” – Yes, isn’t it” – “How are we today? – “Can’t complain.” Goodbye to all that. As trolls throng out of cyberspace and into the real world, any trivial comment can set someone screaming for or against it. Nobody wants to start an early-morning argument about unsettled weather not being caused by climate change, or about vaccinations spreading autism. As for banning discussions of religion and politics at the dinner table – that’s a ship that long ago sailed and sank.

We define conversation as “an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions or ideas.” The Oxford English Dictionary mischievously cites a Samuel Johnson quote to illustrate that: “No, Sir; we had talk enough, but no conversation; there was nothing discussed.” For Johnson, conversation was an intellectual process, and that’s what made it different from small talk or banter. He expressed concern that any decline in proper political conversation would lead to social unrest. Those who have shared this concern for “good conversation” agree it is not small talk, but has a higher purpose. Real conversation is both a means and an end, full of reason and emotion. It gives back, it makes you a better person.

The German philosopher Martin Buber made an intriguing distinction between two concepts of communication which he called I-You and I-It. In typical turgid Germanic theology, he used his Ich-Du and Ich-Es to express the interpersonal nature of human existence, particularly through language. An I-You relationship between two beings is mutual, authentic and respectful; they communicate without needing to exchange either conviction or information. (Buber’s dense theology comes in when he uses his concept to explore communication between humanity and God. What if there’s no god? Don’t ask, especially in German). But even he could use plain words and everyday examples to illustrate real encounters. Two lovers, a man and his cat, a girl and a tree, two strangers on a train – all may have a dialogue, conversation or exchange.

Buber’s esoteric musing was prescient for the modern state of dialogue. I-You conversations recede and I-It obsessions with smart devices are everywhere. Buber’s I-You relationship – in conversation – develops only if we are open to it and make no demands. The other person (or cat) responds to our welcoming and willing gesture, and an encounter begins. The relationship lacks any structure and cannot be measured, but he stressed that it is real and will last as long as the individual wills it. Buber’s I-It is the opposite of I-You – instead of two beings engaging one another, the beings do not even meet. The “I” part defines its own idea of the other being, and treats it as an object. An I-It relationship is fake, it’s with oneself; it is not a dialogue, it’s a Trumpian tweet. It has the skill of Professor Turkle’s students, keeping eye contact while texting elsewhere.

Alice: Cheshire Puss, would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: What sort of people live about here?
Cat: In that direction, [waving paw] lives a Hatter: and in that direction, [waving other paw] lives a March Hare. Visit either one you like: they’re both mad.
Alice: But I don’t want to go among mad people.
Cat: Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. You may have noticed that I’m not all there myself. [Fades to grin] I’m mad. You’re mad.
Alice: How do you know I’m mad?
Cat: You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.

(That must be an original Cat22. Yossarian, in Catch 22, claimed he was insane, thus proving he was sane since any sane person would claim to be insane to avoid flying suicidal bombing missions).

Buber published I and Thou in 1923 and nearly a century later later it conjures up an image of two couples in a cafe. One pair is having a happy I-Thou conversation; the other is stuck in two I-It monologues divided by common smartphones. Buber believed that, even in his day, genuine I-Thou experiences were sadly rare. The disengaged, self-centered and materialist I-It lay behind the ills of modernity – isolation, dehumanization, intolerance, despair. It devalued the joy of existence itself.

Professor Turkle notices how her students confuse connection with conversation – “the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship”. Human relationships are demanding and messy. They need patience, tolerance, compromise and above all, empathy – and love, be it familial, romantic or friendly. When we push other people off into a world of data and information, friendship becomes virtuality. Twenty years after Buber, George Orwell also concluded that “the trend of the age is away from creative communal amusements and toward solitary mechanical ones.” And it would not surprise Marshall McLuhan to see that the medium (not TV now, but smartphone) has become not only the message, but also the messenger and the recipient.

It will not be long before those who now have bad conversations with one another will be able to have bad conversations with their technology. We’re almost there – “Siri, what are you wearing?” Google’s Duplex is a sort of artificial-intelligence (AI) assistant that can make phone calls for you. It’s finest achievement so far has been to book a haircut appointment without the receptionist knowing it wasn’t human. (Big deal – few receptionists we speak to ever treat us as human). There’s still some way to go before Duplex will join you at the barber and chime in with “how about that Liverpool goal last night” or inquire if “you’d like something for the weekend.” (Wink!)

Last year, IBM rolled out Project Debater, its advance on Deep Blue the chess player and Watson the Jeopardy quiz whizz. (Internet wags at once renamed it the Master Debater). The machine was generally agreed to have performed well enough in two brief debates with humans, but its robotic female voice and rectangular black-box body language (none) aren’t getting it invited to any dinner parties soon. “I love talking about nothing,” said master-debater Oscar Wilde, “it is the only thing I know anything about.” So, a Wilde might be the best person to converse with a robot. Like Seinfeld, most AI conversation programs seem to be about nothing, mere exchanges of data between networks.

Project Debater could not absorb more than four minutes of speech at a time. That may sound no worse than the average teenager, but there’s a lot more to conversation than mechanically discussing whether NASA should go to Mars (one of the debater’s topics). Human conversation is fragmented, unpredictable, with topics forking off in odd directions. There are flashes of irritation, outbreaks of laughter, ums, aahs and repetitions. Since the arrival of a universal encyclopedia in our pockets, no one has become more irritating than the smart-ass who always checks your facts on Google – a real conversation stopper. Conversation is more akin to storytelling than fact spouting. People don’t chat to swap facts and accurate minutiae. They do so to share feelings and experiences, and at their best, they want to understand one another. Studies suggest that women talk to form bonds, building and maintaining their social network. Men talk about themselves or things they know a lot about, often to impress people around them.

Conversations are about whatever comes to mind, not related to how interesting it is. What usually comes to mind are the everyday things in our current environment, sometimes important (to us), but mostly trivial. It is on this organic human web that technology wreaks havoc, and it’s not just the couple texting elsewhere or the moron looking up your current ailment on Wikipedia. Even if two people sit with their silenced phones lying on the table, the mere presence of the devices changes the quality of conversation. There are furtive, probably unconscious, glances at the phones, inhibiting the natural flow of chatter – because these two think they’re about to be interrupted. The silent phone is like the hovering boss who might say, “Can I have a word?,” or the partner about to say “We have to talk.” They all really mean “you’re going to have to listen to this” and that bodes ill for any further pleasurable conversation.

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars,” wrote Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary. The pleasure we can take in completely banal chats with people we like is the pleasure of talking itself. When the experts debate modern conversation, or where it’s headed, they also ponder what we might do to save it from death by digital assault. It’s astonishing how many books, articles and videos are out there (yes, in the digital world) admonishing us to cast the devil’s devices aside and talk to one another again. A TED talk-circuit guru, psychologist Celeste Headlee, mocks self-help advice on how to have a good chat – lean forward, nod, keep eye contact. “It’s crap. There’s no need to learn how to pay attention if you are – in fact – paying attention!”

The only consistent advice on the topic comes wrapped in one word – listen. Listen to the other person, listen to learn something about their world. Lose yourself, find them. And beware of pretending to listen – it’s a not a space for thinking what you’re going to say next, or for wondering what to get for dinner. From good listening come good questions to ask, adding curiosity and empathy. “Everyone you ever meet knows something you don’t – people are fascinating, but only if you’re interested in them do you learn why,” Headlee says.

Hatter: Your hair wants cutting.
Alice: You should learn not to make personal remarks. It’s very rude.
Hatter: Why is a raven like a writing-desk?
Alice: I believe I can guess that.
Hatter: Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?
Alice: Exactly so.
March Hare: Then you should say what you mean.
Alice: I do! At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.
Hatter: Not the same thing a bit!
March Hare: You might just as well say that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

The Hatter could now tell Alice that Google Duplex can make a hair appointment for her. So, why is a raven like a writing desk? There is no answer to that; Lewis Carroll said so, many times. But answer me this:

Why is a good conversation like a mini-skirt?
It’s short enough to maintain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.