Shall we start talking?

DYING CONVERSATIONS

Shall we start talking?

You must have read this joke about the guest being super elated when instead of being offered water and snacks he was given the wifi password by the host. We may not know our neighbours today, but the names of their wifi portals? Of course, we do.

There are courses for just about everything today. Some teach you how to make perfect cupcakes, others promise to make your relationships better. Soon, there’ll be hoardings announcing special offers for early birds who register for a course on ‘the art of simple conversation’. Yes, today we are forgoing, or perhaps forgetting, the most vital human skill — to converse.

 We are so hooked on to our tabs and mobile screens that ‘real’ conversation has become a rarity. In case you are among the almost extinct species that believes that it isn’t the phone, but the user who needs to be ‘smart’, well, then there is still hope.

Gone with the techEver wondered why we hesitate to communicate these days. Is it because we don’t want to disturb others? Or that we are too busy to indulge in a chat? Even seeking directions has become a thing of the past. One would rather switch on the GPS and ask Siri or Google for help to reach our destination. The selfie stick has also contributed to the growing disconnect between the tourist and the locals in any place, for there is absolutely no need to talk! In fact, if someone does try to converse with us today, we are likely to doubt their intentions.

It’s the age of pithy sentences and emoticons. Gone are the days when
conversations began by asking each other of their wellbeing. These days WhatsApp messages or Instagram uploads act as trigger points for most interpersonal communication. Thanks to social media, we know so much about what’s happening across the globe, but sadly, fail to notice what may be happening under our roofs.

“What I’ve found is that those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are,” writes Sherry Turkle, culture analyst and author of books like Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

Radhika Ashokan, a soft skills trainer, couldn’t agree more. She has observed a drastic change in the communication skills of young associates. “They can write the most complicated of codes, but ask them to sit with the client to gather their requirements and they fumble,” she notes. Have we really become more comfortable with a user-friendly interface, rather than a face-to-face conversation?

“Today, when a child says, ‘I want to play tennis,’ it inevitably means on his iPad or cell phone! All the festive greetings which used to be a personal ritual among family members are now replaced by group greetings on WhatsApp. We are becoming more unsocial through social media,” argues Guru Prasad, an IT professional. “We have become more
immobile because of mobiles,” he quips.

Be the change

Looking at our growing addiction to cell phones, the day is not too far perhaps when we’ll have detox centres mushrooming in our cities, just like they are now in Chinese towns. Be it weddings or funerals, people can’t seem to part with their cell phones. From updating profile pictures to clicking selfies, we have this undying urge to keep the world posted about our experiences.

“We have got so engrossed with this virtual ‘village’ that we are taking our real world and the people in it for granted,” rues Lorine Sequeira, who still believes in the power of one-to-one conversations and makes it a point to meet friends at regular intervals. “My family and cousins visit each other even today and stay over at each other’s place, just as we did in the good old days,” she says.

Karthika Menon, an independent market researcher, believes that most often people share so much personal information on social media that nothing much is left to talk. “I am not really active on social media. I have never had a Facebook account. So I usually just call up my family and friends whenever I want to talk to them. Even at home, we try to keep the use of gadgets to the minimum. So we are able to connect with each other more as a family and share our everyday events,” she says. “My husband and I rely more on telephone conversations rather than WhatsApp,” she adds.

According to author Sherry, “we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter because it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.” By denying conversation with our little ones, we are denying them their right to a healthy emotional development too.

“It is a sad development,” accepts Dr Sudha Venkat, who found it extremely difficult to come to terms with the fact that her 3-year-old enjoyed being at home more than playing in the park. Children today find playing with gadgets easier than playing with kids their own age.

Charolette Ladek, a mother of three, has set some ground rules at home — ‘no devices during meals’, for instance. “We try to be there in the moment,” she notes. But what leaves her bemused is that “most people are more alive in the virtual life than in the real one.”

“The feeling that no one is listening to me,” writes Sherry, “makes us want to spend time with machines that seem to care about us.” Also, if we don’t teach our children to be alone, she contends, they’re only going to know how to be lonely. “At this point, it is more about finding the right balance so that we don’t forget what makes humans different from other animals. Our ability to talk or communicate and use this gift wisely,” says Karthika.

No doubt, our reasons to use technology could vary — some want to connect, others want to disconnect, and the rest just want to fill the void. Nevertheless, it does possess the potential of becoming something we never quite envisioned. So, it’s high time we moved our gaze from the screen to the people around us, and for a change, discuss — and not hashtag.

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