Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

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What’s Happened to Conversation?


Bill-Frayer-2010I remember, years ago, when people started to use answering machines. I used to feel nervous that I would have to deal with one of these devices and think of what to say if I was asked to record a message. By the time I retired from my teaching job in 2007, it was not unusual for a caller to be noticeably disappointed when I answered my phone. The caller would say something like, “Oh, you’re there...” My picking up the phone would require that the caller speak to me, in real time, rather than leave a message! How disappointing. Although I now feel comfortable with answering machines, I am reluctant to dive, head first, into adopting all the newest forms of electronic “communication.”

Despite my personal misgivings, the world does appear to be moving on without me. We were recently driving through the United States on multiple highways and turnpikes. I was astonished that, at the service areas, were numerous, strongly-worded warnings not to text while driving. To me it seems insane that anyone would try to do such a task while driving. It’s not much different than reading a newspaper while driving; I guess people do it, but, really!

Driving dangers aside, I wonder what is happening to the skill of conversation. How many people (including me, I admit) become so absorbed in using the computer that they block out or fail to hear someone who is trying to speak to them?  It’s also a matter of degree.  I have heard of families that sit in the same room with their laptops communicating, silently, with one another on Facebook.  

I suspect that many younger people, who have never lived in a world where simple face-to-face communication was the norm, are simply not learning how to talk to one another. I notice it in stores, sometimes, when I try to talk to the clerk about something unrelated to our transaction. There is not a lot of skillful conversation coming from across the counter, to say the least. How many otherwise bright, thoughtful twenty-somethings cannot hold an in-depth conversation which involves listening and responding appropriately and thoughtfully to what your partner has to say? How many relationships are damaged, or never adequately develop, because our “communication” technology is making it difficult to communicate in an effective manner? 

I have recently been trying to settle an insurance claim resulting from vandalism to our car while in Texas. I was on the phone for over an hour the other day trying to get this settled, and I was transferred five times to different people who only saw a small piece of the situation. Needless to say, no one apparently had the authority to explain to me what the outcome was going to be. So who designs these user-unfriendly systems? My guess is that it was designed by people who, themselves, are not comfortable with face-to-face communication, and who design the system to minimize it.  Ugh!  

I think the implications of this phenomenon are serious. And it’s a supreme irony that the very inventions which supposedly increase the speed and efficacy of our communication are, actually, making real, honest communication increasingly difficult.

It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.  ~Stephen Mallarme




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