Welcome to the 10th post in our Journey in Dialog. What does it mean to have a real conversation?

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” offers a contemporary perspective about empathy and dialog. In her research, she found that “when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other.”

Turkle asks, “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?”

A 15-year-old she interviewed at a summer camp talked about her reaction when she went out to dinner with her father and he took out his phone to add ‘facts’ to their conversation. “Daddy,” she said, “stop Googling. I want to talk to you.’”

Turkle tells about the study of psychologist, Yalda T. Uhls, who was the lead author on a study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. “After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group.

“In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do,” said this researcher.

In her blog, Christina Ling tells about Conversation Dinners. “Theodore Zeldin is an Oxford scholar and thinker who created The Oxford Muse Foundation. … The Muse’s aim is to rethink the ways in which we communicate with and understand one another. It responds to the superficiality of much social discourse by organizing Conversation Dinners that transcend traditional conversation norms.

“It is not so much a simple conversation as a meeting of minds. … It is to fully engage yourself in a respectful, meaningful conversation, to understand another person in a new way.”

As a participant in one of these Conversation Dinners, Ling found that when preconceptions, trifling small talk, and the attempts to impress are stripped down to who we really are, there is openness to transformation. “Authentic conversation unites us,” concludes Ling. “When we lower our façades and open our minds to the perspectives of others, we allow ourselves to connect and work together on a level we never have before.”

  • To what extent does your cell phone inhibit real conversation?
  • Would you want to participate in the kind of conversation dinner Ling describes? Why or why not?

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