Are We Forgetting How to Talk?

To each other, that is: What is the death of conversation doing to our minds?

Besides the obvious mass shootings, say might one sign be our waning willingness to converse with each other in real time?

A conversation which scientists define as deliberate “turn-taking” between communicative sounds is so primordial that other species do it, too: from wrens to rats to elephants.

Studies reveal that two conversing humans attain “neural synchrony” as their brainwave-rhythms begin to match. Parent-child dialogues marked by frequent turn-taking strengthen children’s language skills. Patients who chat with nurses during surgery display less pain and anxiety than those who do not. And, overall, good conversations are linked to greater happiness.

Our ancestors used conversation an advanced version of canine groin-sniffs to share information but also to assess potential friends and foes. Their questions and answers tested the minefield that is coexistence.

A conversation is a tool by which we reveal authentic but also calculated, filtered versions of ourselves — the creation of which is crucial data, too. Conversations state cases and create safe space. Conversing, we console.

Or could. Technology wins us eternal silence. Maybe we mutter thanks to clerks and sorry to jostling strangers, but generations grow up keystroking dialogues. We who remember conversation often celebrate its death, because despite being primordial, it can be hard.

Introverts such as I should celebrate its death. Yet our endemic separation scares me in some sci-fi, devolutionary way: This exquisite activity for which our brains, mouths, and larynxes spent millions of years improving, we now proudly watch erode. Imagine severing our legs because we need no longer walk to work. Is this how post-Bronze Age Greece felt as its populace forgot how to read and write?

But misanthropy is addictive. Sometimes the only conversation, with its wild instant-connections, ignites fragmentary hope for humankind. Should we rescue by talking to whoever seems even more miserable than ourselves at parties? Ask them questions whose answers we truly seek?

A friend says: Folks are worth it for their stories. Which we must extract.

Curiosity died first, then slaughtered conversation: ironically unsurprising in an age when so much data is so easily accessible as to induce universal choice overload. And monologuing into webcams makes kids into millionaires and pop-stars boast “I’m a brand, b***h” and “Give my a** some kisses,” training fans to find nothing more fascinating than themselves.

I sat across a dinner-table from an Instagrammer. Total silence would have been so awkward that I asked her questions which she gladly answered while asking me none. It was the conversational equivalent of cold collegiate erotic sessions in which one party does all the work. Does this presage the apocalypse or am I the obviously dullest person in the world?

Would she ask questions of anyone else? Anyone else, as in someone specific, or anyone else, as in all persons except me?

Is not-asking a personal affront, as good as guffawing “You bore me,” or simply a symptom of never-asking-anyone-anything?

Five years ago I noticed fewer questions being asked. Then, like malignancies, this fractalized from now and then to how s*** is.

Now, the out-loud conversation seems a cringey ancient thing grandparents do. Instead, we talk by typing — often under false names, seldom in real time. Imagine saying hi, aloud, to someone who obliviously kept driving or cooking then five hours later chirped, as if this was totally normal, Hi.

If wrens and elephants converse instinctually, we should find it effortless to ask. Answer. Listen. Respond. Repeat. Yet our big brains perversely problematize dialogue, because unlike other species we know our every word and tone conveys multiple meanings. “Nice coat,” might praise, challenge, or microaggress. The interaction that made our forebears feel safe imperils us.

Still, is it worth saving? Are we?

What is the death of conversation doing to our minds? What are we losing when we laughingly abandon hello-hello-how-are-you-fine-thanks-how-are-you by the roadside? Are we losing empathy? History? Touch? Are we becoming interpersonal illiterates?

Not all small talk is small.


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