This week, millions of us will endure crowded airports and traffic jams just to sit down to dinner with people we probably can see every day on Facebook.
We are not doing it for the cranberry sauce.
We are doing it for the face time — which, wonders of technology aside, is not the same as FaceTime, texting, emailing, tweeting or any other form of electronic communion.
“Face-to-face conversation is what sustains us. It gives us a sense of connection,” says Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who leads an initiative on the social and psychological influence of technological change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Eye contact, seeing a face, hearing a voice. Those things together give us a feeling of being cared for and caring for another person.”
In Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, she says increasing numbers of Americans — including young digital natives — are starting to worry about what can be lost when we trade sustained face-to-face talk for snippets of multi-tasked electronic chat.
And research suggests there’s reason to worry. One recent study asked more than 11,000 adults ages 50 and older how often they had face-to-face visits, phone conversations or email or other written contact with family and friends. After two years of follow-up, researchers found that people with the most in-person contact were the least likely to be depressed — but that frequent phone calls and emails had no such effect (assuming a cause-and-effect relationship, which the study cannot prove).
“Having face-to-face time with your family and friends acted as a kind of preventative medicine for avoiding depression,” says the study’s lead author, Alan Teo, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Time with friends seemed to matter the most for people under age 70, he says; time with family members mattered most for older participants.
“There is something powerful about a good old-fashioned face-to-face visit,” Teo says.
Turkle agrees: “When you are face to face with someone, you see second to second how that person is responding to you. You learn about them, you learn about yourself. The relationship changes, for better and worse. That’s what a real relationship is.”
But Turkle and other observers worry that even such face-to-face moments are increasingly threatened by the very devices that keep us constantly in touch with a broader world. Studies suggest that just the visible presence of a mobile phone — bursting with the potential for new emails, posts and texts — can leave people feeling less connected to in-person conversational partners. That’s even before anyone checks or starts typing on a phone.
“It’s wonderful to be connected to the wider world, but we are paying a price for that,” says Shalini Misra, an environmental psychologist who is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and based in Alexandria, Va. She has led research on phones and conversations in coffee shops, and she found in one unpublished study that even the presence of Wi-Fi is linked to poorer quality conversations.
Like Misra, Turkle believes our devices, for all their intrusiveness, are wonderful — when used in ways that bring us closer.
“If your grandchildren live in Minnesota and you are in New Jersey, FaceTiming with them is a blessing,” she says.
But when you are a grandparent in the same room as a grandchild and you both are busy posting pictures of the turkey, texting jokes with far-off friends or checking flight schedules, then something important is lost.
“We owe it to other generations to listen to their stories,” Turkle says.
So she has a suggestion: If you are hosting Thanksgiving dinner, put out a basket and ask your guests to drop their phones into it.
“In a very sweet way, you just say to your children and your family: ‘This Thanksgiving is going to be device-free because it’s really important that our family talk to each other. This isn’t to punish anybody. We are all in this together.'”
Here are some of Turkle’s other tips for bringing conversation back, not just at Thanksgiving, but every day:
• Create “sacred” spaces for conversation. A holiday dinner is a good place to start, but you will get more conversational mileage out of everyday family meals, car rides and walks.
• Use the 7-minute rule. Give a conversation at least that long to unfold — boring bits, silences and all.
• Make a point of talking to people with whom you disagree. That does not happen much online, where we sort ourselves into like-minded groups and often fear censure for saying things our friends and followers might not like.
• Choose the right tool for the job. Emails and texts are extremely useful and sometimes best, but there’s no substitute for face to face when it comes to some conversations — including many of the hardest ones.
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