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The Lost Art of Conversation: Why We Communicate More But Say Less

There have never been more ways for people to communicate. Pick up your smartphone and you quickly see why. You’ve got WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber and Telegram, all designed to do what a mobile was built to do in the first place – make calls and send text messages.

Then there is social media, Facebook proper, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, all allowing you to share whatever it is occupying your mind publically or at least in extended groups of contacts and friends. For video calling, there is Skype and FaceTime. For work, there is Slack and Microsoft Teams. And all of this is before we even mention email.

So many ways to communicate and connect with one another, with a practically global reach. But what are we actually saying to each other? With all of this choice, with our energies spread so thinly, is there a danger of conversations losing their meaning? As communication proliferates, instead of promoting better mutual understanding, is it under threat as the art of dialogue, discussion and conversation dies out?

Not built for purpose

Let’s take instant messaging and social media as an example. The convenience of being able to stay in touch with friends remotely 24/7 via your mobile phone strikes most people as a fantastic innovation. Plus, instead of restricting you to talking to one person at a time as the old-fashioned phone call does, chat groups and social media mean you can carry on ‘conversations’ with many people at once.

But here’s the rub – what is the quality of these conversations? We famously now live in a world where the day’s big talking points are more likely to be thrashed out on social media or in the comments section of a current affairs website than they are face-to-face at the water cooler, in a cafe or in a bar. Even the president of the United States seems to prefer to govern by Twitter. But how much can you actually say 280 characters at a time?

Even on platforms where there is no character limit, conversation-by-text is just a lot more stifled and stuttering than the free flow of speech. It takes time (especially on mobile) to type a well thought-out, balanced response on a difficult point, so we tend to cut our ‘turns’ in a conversation short. This affects the depth of text conversation, raising the likelihood of ambiguity and misunderstanding.

This is compounded by the fact that text just cannot replicate the visual cues that add so much to mutual comprehension in a face-to-face conversation, or even the verbal cues (tone of voice, subtle variance in speed and rhythm of speech etc) that enrich telephone conversations. We’ve all probably been in a situation where we’ve fired off a rapid response by IM, SMS or email and then been horrified on re-reading what we’ve written to realise our words could be taken entirely the wrong way. Higher-order conversational tropes like humour, irony and concession just aren’t easily conveyed in text.

The truth is, the written word just wasn’t designed for the cut-and-thrust of deep, meaningful conversation. That is not to belittle the power of the written word as an instrument of long-term record keeping, mass communication and, at its best, high art. But as a channel for real-time conversation, text has had maybe three decades of to evolve; speech has likely had upwards of 60,000 years.

It is therefore worth remembering that, when it comes to conversing via text, we are still infants. If we rely on it too much to the detriment of spoken conversation, we will lose a great deal in what we are able to communicate to one another, and how we achieve mutual understanding.