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Back in Touch With Authentic Conversation

By favoring face-to-face interaction over high-tech communication, our parents remind us what real connection is all about

posted by Donna Sapolin, May 13, 2012 More by this author

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Donna Sapolin is the Founding Editor of Next Avenue. Follow Donna on Twitter @stylestorymedia.


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Last weekend’s New York Times ran an Opinion piece by Sherry Turkle, a psychologist, professor at M.I.T. and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. In the article, Turkle discussed how overly wired lives have become the norm and analyzed the less-obvious downsides of this phenomenon.

“At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail,” she wrote. “At work executives text during board meetings. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.”

Turkle goes on to note that our little devices and the way they’ve retrained us to relate to others changes “not only what we do, but also who we are. A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn’t stop by to talk; he doesn’t call. He says that he doesn’t want to interrupt them.… But then he pauses and corrects himself. ‘I’m not telling the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted.’

She tells of a 16-year-old boy who uses texting almost exclusively to communicate and yet laments, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

The day before I read this piece, I had a long Saturday morning chat with my mother about adopting new technologies, spurred by her friend’s recent acquisition of an iPad. She questioned its potential value to her and expressed concern about her ability to absorb instruction about how to use it should she acquire one. I addressed what I thought were her fears, where they stemmed from (both individual and generational issues) and how to shed them.

By the end of the talk, I felt I had helped her arrive at an understanding of her anxieties surrounding the new technology and had nudged her closer to becoming an “eventual adopter.” The next day, she sent the following email.

Donna honey, This is a piece from the New York Times today, relevant to our conversation yesterday. No wonder I am ambivalent about all those modern communication devices—it is not just fear of technology. Much love, Mom
 
My mother (now 77) has always enjoyed a very vibrant social life, and to my mind, that is one of the main things that has kept her youthful, knowledgeable and jazzed about life.

New communication technologies are being touted as salvations for older people—manufacturers and marketers say they’re critical methods for helping them remain connected (and monitored) as they become increasingly separated from families, friends, social situations and services. 
 
I understand the thinking. But when it comes to our interactions with people in this stage of life, it’s vital that we shouldn't allow ourselves the “out” that inventive devices afford. My 20-something-year-old children and I have long been groomed in remote, byte-sized communication and rewired to think that gadgets are the best way forward—but that is not and will never be true for my mother's generation. 

The ability to stay in touch and other key aspects of caregiving will certainly be eased by gadgetry, but we must not fool ourselves that they can replace the nourishment of authentic conversation and physical interaction—or that they are the keys to aging more healthfully and meaningfully. I have no doubt that the best way forward on that front is looking backward—to how we used to connect before we began looking more at screens and less into eyes.

Could folks like my mother derive some measure of enjoyment and benefit by getting on-board with brand new technologies? Of course. They might find the experience of reading on a tablet more enjoyable than reading on paper and therefore actually read more. And they might experience a greater number of remote interactions with faraway friends and family members and delve into a new game that keeps the brain sharp.

But those activities also risk taking them away from face-to-face social outings and interactions. And a deep “commitment” to an electronic life might make those who care for them think that physical presence and engagement with their loved ones is less needed or valuable.

In truth, the less tech-savvy generation ahead of us—those who many readily dismiss as “out of touch”—is more authentically “in touch.” With her insistence on hanging out with friends at the bridge table, in the pool, at the concert hall, theater and with her writing group, my mother models for me the kind of behavior that is known to fuel vitality and longevity. Electronic screens and a steady stream of 140-character missives may diffuse isolation for some, but they are very pale substitutes for pats on the back, hugs and long Saturday morning conversations.