How to Put Out a Fire

“Our texts are fine.  It’s what texting does to our conversations when we are together, that’s the problem.”  Cameron, College Junior

april 2016 043

How are your conversations going?  Have you sparked any conversations to life by adding a good dose of curiosity, humor and impudence to the table – some good conversational nerve to talk about what might be hard or scary to talk about?  Have you found some conversations veering in directions you never could have imagined?  How’s that been?

But perhaps before blogging a few weeks ago about how to spark a conversation to life, I should have started by talking about how to put out a good conversational fire.  Before we teach our kids how to light a match, we better teach them what to do when the match drops to the floor and starts smoldering on the rug.

So you want to put out a conversational fire?  Try putting a cell phone on the table.

april 2016 045

Studies show that the mere presence of a phone of the table (even a phone turned off) changes what people talk about.  If we think we might be interrupted, we keep the conversations light and focused on topics of little controversy or consequence.

And conversations with phones on the landscape block empathic connection as well.   Empathy is the ability to feel another’s pain, to show com-passion, “suffering with” another in their struggle.   For the past ten years there’s been a sharp decline in the markers for empathy among college students.  The relationship between empathy and the new presence of digital communications is the subject of a new book by renowned media scholar Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

Why do we spend so much time messaging each other if we end up feeling less connected to each other?  Turkle’s interviews show that in the short term online communication makes us feel more in charge of our time and self-presentation.  If we text rather than talk, we can have each other in amounts we can control.  And texting and emailing and posting let us present the self we want to be.  We can edit and retouch.

Turkle calls it the Goldilocks effect:

 “We can’t get enough of each other if we can have each other at a digital distance – not too close, not too far, just right.”

The downside of mere online connections however, is that human relationships are rich, messy and demanding.  When we clean up our relationships with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiency of mere connection.  The fire goes out.

april 2016 047

Don’t worry Turkle’s not a Luddite and she doesn’t want us to give up our beloved smart phones but she does want us to understand their effects on us so we use them with greater intention and live differently with them.

Texts, tweets and emails all can effectively generate a lot of fire of connection and have an incredible ability to make stuff happen.  But there is something else that is necessary for building a life of connection as well – connecting to yourself.

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something.  That’s what the phones are taking away.  The ability to just sit there.  That’s just being a person.”  (Louis C.K., Actor and Comedian)

So, slow down, Turkle advises.  Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself.  To have them, you have to learn to listen to your own voice.  A first step is to slow down sufficiently to make this possible.  Today, a quarter of American teenagers will be connected to a device within five minutes of waking up.  Most teenagers send one hundred texts a day.  Eighty percent sleep with their phones.  Forty-four percent do not “unplug” – ever.  When is there time in your day to hear your own voice?

Obey the seven-minute rule.  It takes at least seven minutes to see how a conversation is going to unfold.  Don’t go to your phone before those seven minutes pass.  If there is a lull in the conversation, let it be.  Learn to see boredom as an opportunity to find something interesting within yourself.  Conversation, like life, has silences and boring bits.

Finally, choose the right tool for the job.  There is nothing wrong with texting or emailing or videoconferencing.  And there is everything right with making them technically better, more intuitive, easier to use.  But no matter how good they get, they have an intrinsic limitation:  People require eye contact for building connection.  If a tool gets in the way of looking at each other, we should use it only when necessary.  Otherwise, we might well put out the fire before we can even start one.

A phone is not just an accessory.  It’s a psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are.  To clear a path for conversation, try setting aside the laptops and tablets.  Put away your phone and risk lighting a fire.

april 2016 017





One thought on “How to Put Out a Fire”

  1. Peter, I so appreciated your insight on this topic. This is a challenging issue as a parent trying to set boundaries around phone use. I am grateful for thought provoking conversations that happen face to face and appreciate time together with out distractions. Thank you for reminding us how nourishing this is and how worth the effort in our over-stimulated world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s