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Smartphones are killing the art of conversation

by Michael Hoffman

If our age is rich in anything, it is, one would think (wrongly), rich in things to talk about. How can anyone nowadays be at a loss for words? What excuse is there for awkward silence? The merest glance at a newspaper furnishes conversational fodder for a lifetime — reminding us, if anyone is in danger of forgetting, that we are living two extremes at once: the superhuman technological empowerment of humankind, and the potential destruction of the planet. The first may defeat the second, or it may hasten it. Anyway, that famous purportedly ancient Chinese curse — “May you live in interesting times” — is undoubtedly upon us. Can it have robbed us of the power of speech?

The weekly Shukan Post tells this story: A trading company executive and one of his subordinates were drinking with a client one evening, the young subordinate keeping respectfully quiet while the executive engaged the client in conversation. The executive’s phone rang. He excused himself and attended to the call. Ten minutes later he returned to find the subordinate and the client sitting in dead silence, staring down at the table in the profoundest discomfort.

“Why didn’t you talk to him?” the executive demanded afterwards.

The subordinate shrugged, blushed, squirmed. “I didn’t know what to say,” he mumbled.

Several similar anecdotes follow, the most exasperated tone struck in one about a mortgage company that gets a call one morning from a client: “Next time send somebody else to deal with us, otherwise it will be impossible for us to do business with you.”

“Why? What happened?”

“The fellow had not a word to say other than about the business at hand!”

Is that so terrible? you might ask. It is. “Business,” observes consultant Koji Takashiro, “is 90 percent small talk.” Wheels need greasing, ice needs breaking. That requires talk. Beasts have this advantage over us: they can express fellowship merely by grunting at each other. We can’t, and so must have a store of wit and wisdom — nothing deep, just stimulating enough to set the right mood for the hard bargaining ahead. That used to be second nature to business people. Why, Shukan Post wonders, is it no longer?

Two suggested answers ring true. One is smartphone dependency. So much communication is now screen to screen that face to face skills never develop. Another is the relative poverty of the current young generation, born into recession and forced to get through university with much less spending money than their parents or grandparents had at that age. With no money you can’t go out much, and staying home tends to make introverts of people.

Does it make us nasty as well as taciturn? Whatever constraints of character or circumstance inhibit our tongues do not, evidently, paralyze our fingers. Online and anonymous, we have plenty to say, much of it unpleasant, as Aera magazine discovers to its surprise.

It cites examples. A young woman posting a comment on a chat site to the effect that guys who choose Doutor coffee shops over Starbucks are cheap is inundated by abuse: “Ugly old bitch,” etc. — and is left wondering, “What did I do to deserve this?” A man in his thirties launches a blog on Japan-South Korea relations, hoping to get a serious discussion going, only to see it degenerate almost immediately into name-calling. A young man chancing to mention that he likes some idol singer or other has to fend off taunts about his supposed inability to have normal sexual relations with flesh-and-blood women.

Crudest of all are the insults hurled at Hirotada Ototake, author of a bestselling memoir (“No One’s Perfect,” 1998) describing, what it’s like to have been born without arms and legs. In May he tweeted about being turned away from a restaurant that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accommodate his wheelchair.

Daruma trash!” snapped one disgruntled follower — “daruma” being the famous self-righting (limbless) Daruma doll associated with the semi-legendary founder of Zen Buddhism. Another respondent, dispensing with the religious imagery, hissed, “Garbage!”

Why? There’s no knowing. Nameless and invisible, you can vent your ire, frustrations and malice as you please, civilly or not, rationally or not. What’s anybody going to do about it?

Maybe we can’t talk to people because our truest emotions are incompatible with polite conversation. We’d rather bite our interlocutors than converse with them — nothing personal, just the accumulated stresses and strains of living in “interesting times.” It won’t do. Business must be done; relationships must be nurtured; dialogue, consequential and/ or atmospheric, must unfold. Shukan Post mentions a boom over the past four years in “conversation manuals” — books with titles like “Anyone Can Keep a Conversation Going for At Least 15 Minutes!: 66 Rules for Good Talking.” That particular volume sold 800,000 copies. You’d think it would have made a noticeable dent in the problem. It doesn’t seem to have.

Sixty-six rules! It would be interesting to know what they are — the magazine doesn’t say. Is conversation really so complicated, in an age when any off-hand remark about that time-honored subject of last resort, the weather, would lead naturally and effortlessly into climate change and the fate of the Earth? If that can’t keep a party of sentient beings going until it’s time to talk business, smartphone dependency has done more damage than even pessimists acknowledge.

  • Ryan Wadkins

    Life is a river, and the internet is a dam.

  • Sam Gilman

    Congratulations, Mr Hoffman. You have officially become a grumpy old man.

    Was there a collapse in conversation skills during the Great Depression? Did the art of conversation dry up after the invention of mass printing?

    Tsk. Youth of today. Their music is dreadful too. Not like in my day…

  • http://www.jaapdenhaan.blogspot.nl/ JAHAAN

    If you meet Japanese people in a group, you see how balanced can be the amount of energy they share, the attention that is given to each, and what is said by whom. Smartphones on the other hand are based on exploitation and one-way relationships, they have destroyed the dependability that is essential to society, in inner circles too much and too long is spoken about useless matters. Their use has bred more prejudice.