Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT initiative on technology and the self, is currently the world renowned expert on the way that technology is transforming the way we communicate. Turkle is the author of 5 books on relationships in the digital age. Her newest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is a New York Times best seller. The popularity of her latest book, and those that preceded it, testify to our hunger to understand what is missing in our lives despite the myriad of opportunities to stay digitally connected. Somehow, despite texting, whatsapp, email, facebook, and twitter, we sense that something is still missing.
Turkle explains that a conversation is much more than an exchange of information. It is a special way of hearing and being heard. A real conversation is a conversation where we give each other the gift of our full attention. In an interview with Arianna Huffington, for the Huggington Post, Turkle stated “Research shows that if you put a phone — a phone turned off! — out on a table between two people having lunch, not only does the conversation “lighten up,” move to more trivial things, but the connection that two people have lessens. They feel less of a commitment to each other.”
In other words, a face to face conversation without a phone on the table is a form of commitment. It states I'm here with you. I'm here to listen. I'm staying right here and not running away. Whereas answering the phone, checking emails, or texting, is perceived by the person we are with as a form of disengaging from them. By being fully present, and letting the other person know we are fully present, we allow them the opportunity to make themselves vulnerable to us. Face to face conversations provide instant feedback in the name of facial expressions, and body language that let the speaker know how the listener is responding to their words. If we are not listening, our lack of eye-contact and non-responsive body language will give us away.
However if we are listening, the conversation will evolve in a way that allows us to experience genuine connection. Connection leads to empathy, which is the ability to understand how the person we are speaking with is experiencing the world. It's not that we project how we would feel in their situation, but rather we understand how the experience feels and what it means to them. In other words, empathy removes us from our limited perspective and allows us to access the world of another.
While in an ordinary relationship, the ability to transcend our own limited perspective experience might be less critical, in marriage and family this is the core of intimacy. Letting our loved ones know they have been not only heard but understood, letting them know that what they have shared has made an impact on us, is what intimacy means. We feel closest to those we believe understand us most deeply. We feel closeness and we feel loved.
Interestingly, Turkle, who spent a considerable amount of time with ordinary families as part of the research she conducted for her latest book, states that those who express the most dissatisfaction with the distractions and intrusions of technology on their day to day interactions are children. Children, even young children, repeatedly expressed the feeling that they were being cheated out of something they rightly deserve – their parents' undivided attention. With each technological interruption, their trust in their parents was eroded.
Yet Turkle remains hopeful that what has been lost can be restored. Since the simple presence of a switched off phone prevents the development of a deep and meaningful conversation, make a point of letting your spouse and your children know when they can expect to have your full phone-free attention.
Critical moments and opportunities for connection include family meals, after school and after work reunions, car trips, and bedtimes. It is up to all of us to make sure conversation and connection happens by switching the phone off and switching on our best and most loving selves on as often as possible at home.
Tzippora Price M.Sc. is a marital and family therapist.