Conversations Could be Much Better, And Emojis Can Help

We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter (Celeste Headlee, 2017)

This week, on the excellent NPR program Studio 1a, host Joshua Johnson interviewed Celeste Headlee about her new book We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter. Headlee currently hosts the Georgia Public Radio program On Second Thought, and wrote this book as a way to reclaim the lost art of skilled and civilized conversation. This book is an outgrowth of her extremely popular TED Talk on the same topic.

In many respects I agree with Headlee. She points out that humans are not naturally skilled at listening to others, and that we all have a tendency to tune people out until they stop talking so that we get a chance to respond. The lure of smartphones and other devices only makes natural foible worse, as does the thrill of the quick social media put-down. Those angry social media outbursts are generally what must count for political dialogue. Once we get together with people who disagree with us, in person, nobody talks about anything difficult because we do not know how to do so productively. Or we do talk, get into a nasty argument and end up ruining Thanksgiving dinner for everyone.

This is terrible, and the portrait Headlee paints is all too accurate. Compared to my own debates about politics with friends in high school (a time when, admittedly, I was more earnest than wise), today’s disputes feel much more raw and angry and hopeless. There are countless reasons for this sad turn, and hopefully we as a culture will find our way out of this mess. If Headlee’s book sparks a renewal of thoughtful, engaged conversation — one that involves actually listening rather than merely scoring points or settling scores — this will be an amazing and important contribution.

While it may feel churlish given these stakes, I do have one objection to Headlee’s argument. In her interview with Johnson, Headlee said that in order to have an authentic conversation, “don’t send an emoji.” This mis-states the role of emojis, which are essentially humorous punctuation marks. Yes, an entire text exchange filled with nothing but “LOL”’s and emojis would be vacuous and lame. But a thoughtful email or text that includes emojis for emphasis would be a richer conversation. While it is true that humans communicated for millennia without emojis, the same could be said of blogs or indeed the entire internet. Given all that has changed with how we communicate the sharp-eyed focus on emojis is misplaced. They are just one more tool in our communications toolbox, which like anything else can be used in thoughtful or in mindless ways. Indeed, when used well emojis can be part of great conversations.