Evan and I have stopped something and started something. What we’ve stopped: “doing pictures.” Well, not completely, but mostly. In Evan-speak “doing pictures” means pulling out my iPhone or iPad and looking at pictures in my photo software. Sounds harmless, right? You could even say we’re sharing time together. Not really. “Doing Pictures” is a second cousin to watching TV “together.” The only real thing we are “sharing” is a screen.
I started taking note of the time we spend face to face, looking one another in the eye while “doing pictures.” The ONLY time we looked at each other was when I said, “OK, Evan, look at PoP! I’m going to count to 10 and then we are going to put away the pictures for awhile.” He glances at me and (usually) says “OK.” Then it’s back to the pictures for the final countdown. Total Face Time: 2 seconds (maybe).
What we’ve started: “conversation.” In Evan-speak it comes out “combination,” which is close to what happens when we converse. When we look each other in the eye, we “combine” in ways that even the best high-res Gorilla Glass won’t accommodate. When Lauren (“Lolly”) or I (PoP!) do something nice for him we tell him to say, “thanks, Lolly!”
It didn’t take long for “Thanks, Lolly” to slip into a perfunctory and obligatory monosyllabic grunt, “tayayee” – I know it looks like three syllables, but trust me – it’s barely one. So now I say, “Evan, look me in the eye and say, “thanks, PoP!” He turns his head to face me, puts his face about two inches from my face, opens his eyes as wide as the world and says in a strong, clear voice, “THANK YOU, POP!”
At this stage of his development, that little exchange is still pretty efficient. But the time will come when Evan is capable of carrying on complex, messy conversations that will be anything but tidy. That’s the nature of human relationships. You need face time to explore the rabbit trails, to read the inarticulate messages in your partner’s eyes and body language. Our iPhones reduce the uncomfortable verbal wanderings and the pregnant silences into editable text that allows us to avoid the wrinkles in our relationships. Everything comes out smooth as a plastic plate.
According to Sherry Turkle, the insightful author of Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age,
When we clean [human relationships] up with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiencies of mere connection…. In the past 20 years we’ve seen a 40% decline in the markers for empathy among college students. Most of it within the past ten years. It is a trend that researchers link to the presence of digital communications.”
Her book is worth a long, slow read. Turkle will encourage you to return to (or establish) relational oases of conversation. You’ll find yourself combining with your partner in ways that will surprise and delight you! And you will discover not only the lost art of conversation, but the deeper, richer relationship that waits on the other side of the digital divide.