“Did you know that factory chicken farms—they keep the chickens calm by making them wear red contact lenses?” I muttered, pushing my salad around the plate. Here I was, face to face with an eminent professor of the English language, and I found myself missing Gchat. Gchat would give me time to Google his reference to some Florentine poet I’d never heard of. It would even allow me to take a break from talking to watch “David after Dentist.” But, now, trapped in the actual world where remarks were not merely lines of text to be answered or ignored at will, I stared helplessly into my salad, hoping some form of witty discourse would manifest itself on the kale with cranberry dressing. Somewhere faintly behind me I heard the Lowell bells tolling the death knell of the art of conversation.
People have been complaining about the demise of conversation at Harvard for decades. In 1935, Professor Andre Morize offered an explanation for why conversation wasn’t as good as it used to be: “People go to teas, and stand up all through them. You can’t talk well standing up.” Somehow, the problem seems more real now.
Increasingly, talking is something people do when other things are going on. Our generation doesn’t converse—we comment. We hand down our authoritative pronouncements through means of communication that don’t require us to defend our positions. No one has debates on Twitter. YouTube is covered in comments that would be better expressed—and better spelled—via a simple thumbs-up or down. Face-to-face conversation, too, has slipped more and more into commentary. People talk to pass the time, share information, and entertain each other.
On the surface, this seems fine. After all, this is the heyday of the chronic oversharer. Everyone talks all the time, regardless of whether anyone listens. We Tweet, we Facebook, we Gchat, we blog, we text. We share every thought, significant or un, from the moment we switch on our iPhones in the morning to the instant we sit down face to face with an actual person. The difference between face-to-face conversation and any other medium of communication is simple: No distractions are permitted. Fran Lebowitz once remarked that “the opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” Given our intense generational ADD, this has become something of a hurdle. Unlike actual conversation, texts, Gchats, Tweets, wallposts, and e-mails are things you can simply wander off and ignore with total impunity. Our generation likes that. We don’t want to be trapped listening to you explain fiscal policy when we could be watching a video of a cat running into a wall.
Yet the ability to leave these “conversations” whenever we want has another, more sinister dimension. Whenever someone disagrees with that intelligent comment we posted on Huffington Post, we can simply browse away. The idea of persuasive speech, conversation with a point to it that advances one viewpoint over another, is increasingly remote. No one argues anymore, or, if they do, it’s about things like who deserves to pick up that peanut on the common-room floor. The upshot of modern communication methods is that you get to choose whom you talk to, and people tend to pick only those who agree with them.
In previous eras, an ability to defend your opinions in conversation was essential to your intellectual survival. Now, discussion tends to sound something like this comment I found on an online forum: “THAT WHAT’S WRONG WITH KIDS THESE DAYS.THEY SEE ALL THIS SEX ON T.V AND LEARN FROM IT.IT SEEMS LIKE THEY HAVE SEX ON EVERY CHANNEL.EVEN CARTOONS ARE SEX AND FOUL LANGUAGE.KIDS ON CARTOONS ARE TAKING OFF THERE CLOTHES. WE TELL ARE KIDS NOT TO DO SOMETHING.BUT WHEN THEY WATCH T.V. THEY SAY HOW COME ON T.V THEIR DOING.” As we become adults and move into the world, this prospect becomes frightening.
Allowing us to escape the duty of keeping the conversational ball rolling in the face of contention, the Internet and new communication technologies have had the paradoxical effect of allowing us to connect with millions of people—who all share our opinions. We want more of the same. Instead of risking blind dates with friends of friends, we find mates online who match our interests and values. Netflix suggests movies for us like those that we’ve already seen. Pandora constructs radio stations for us out of music we already know we will like. Farewell difference! People who try to engage in debate on online forums are branded as trolls and dismissed. More often than not, this is merited. But trolls and non-trolls alike suffer from the lack of discussion. As our conversation becomes more and more purposeless and self-referential and less and less about persuasion and fleshing out ideas through dialogue, we risk losing depth of thought for good. If we want to escape this dire fate, one thing is clear: We need to talk.
Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English and classics concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.