Can We Talk? — Reclaiming the lost art of conversation

Rajita Gagadkar

A friend and I have been steadfast confidantes for twelve-odd years now. We’re not drinking buddies, group socialisers or the type of girlfriends who go shopping or travel together. We are tea-drinking conversationalists. We meet on slow Bangalore afternoons and evenings at her place with a straightforward agenda — to catch up over tea. Our routine is usually lunch or dinner, followed by and preceded by tea, or just lots of tea along with stirring, uncensored, long-winded conversation. In her snug kitchen, as the water starts to boil and the tea leaves start to unravel and bloom, it’s customary for us to slip off the faces we’ve prepared to meet the world (to loosely paraphrase the troubled Mr Prufrock) and really talk to one another. The conversation usually unfolds like a strange, serpentine song: weird happenings of the week gone by, something notable or silly that was written or read, her son’s kindergarten adventures, my general misadventures, a future plan for our imaginary selves and the odd archaeological dig into the past. The combination of talk and tea is lulling; refreshing as well as soporific. The conversational equivalent of lying on grass on a sunny day.

Like Mma Ramotswe, Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful Motswana heroine, I have learnt to implicitly trust the almost shamanic properties of a cup of tea and the particular type of conversation it teases out of you. Not the tongue-loosening, happy disinhibition of boozy banter over beer, gin or whiskey. Nor the stimulated, sexy verbal notes that coffee shop talk hits. Tea is gentle, slow, patient. Free associative, honest. Tolerant of confessions, awkward pauses, introspection and solipsistic thoughts that drift around.

The other day, during one of our floating conversational reveries, my friend and I got talking about teatime chats as a sociocultural thing. They were done thing in the unpretentious tea rooms (called ‘kissaten’) which mushroomed in Japan during the sixties and seventies. Similarly, unsweetened tea with jam was best savored over unhurried conversations in Russian living rooms in the twentieth century. So was chai consumed over endless, protracted debates in Kolkata’s famous addas. But we began to wonder if leisurely, loquacious teatime repasts with friends and companions have turned into some kind of vintage activity in our hyperconnected, digitized worlds. The sort of seemingly old-world hobbies that reading poetry or writing in notebooks have become. The question soon rearranged itself into a more disturbing one in my head over the following days — is conversation itself becoming obsolete?

I don’t mean the artful, clever conversation that we make at social gatherings — cocktail natter to make ourselves appear smart and winsome. Nor the painfully hard-to-master code of small talk that we are obliged to engage in, ready smiles in place. I am referring to free-wheeling, no-holds-bar, honest-to-good, soul-baring conversation. The verbal tango of sharing and listening that gets our mirror neurons firing, causes minds to meld, unleashing a whiff of feel-good, hippy hormone oxytocin in its wake. The kind of heady talk that travels around the world and into the secret places in our minds, nosing out interesting thoughts and memories. Empathic one-on-ones that briefly take us out of the cocoons of ourselves and let us peep into the heads and hearts of others.

Turkle has a name for this twilight state: she calls it “being along, together”

Yes, says sociologist, psychologist and MIT professor, Sherry Turkle: we’re no more a species which is into deep chit-chat. The spaces where can have these kind of conversations are shrinking, the opportunities to have them fewer, the people to have them with, in short supply, and the appetite to have them, waning. The buzzkill is not some evolutionary mutation, but that innocuous looking device in our hands, the ones we love to cuddle and hate to part with — our smartphones — she says. A London photographer who goes by the name Babycakes Romero recently shot a series of candid images. ‘The Death of Conversation’, features people on streets, at traffic lights, in cafes, waiting rooms and restaurants, on cigarette breaks, at subway stations, riding trains, lounging in parks and hanging out in pubs in a quintessentially weird state of deep communion with their phones, oblivious to friends, people and partners around them. Every one of them is seen hooked to the invisible swirling mists of the internet, head sharply bent at forty-five degrees, eyes fixated on the crystal balls that are their smartphones… staring, searching, seeking, hiding, finding, connecting and disconnecting. “Smartphones have made everyone seriously dull,” the photographer concludes cynically. Turkle has a name for this twilight state: she calls it “being alone, together”.

A while back, I read an essay by writer Nicholas Carr on how Google and the Internet at large were making us stupid. All the hyperlinks, spurious browsing and clicking on random stuff at the speed of humming birds — not to mention the constant email-checking which apparently appeals to “our monkey brains” — was reducing attention span, and impeding the building of long-term memories. This was in 2012. Now, in 2015, Turkle proposes that we interact with each other in a similarly skittish, shotgun fashion, mistaking our tiny, frequent sips of communication online and over social media for the real thing. Holding our devices close at all times and the world at arm’s length, we chat, curate, edit, delete and project parts of ourselves and our lives in a controlled and deliberate blur of likes, opinions, status updates, check-ins, photographs and emotionally breezy emojis. The Descartes line, “I think, therefore I am”, has turned into “I share therefore I am”, further mutating to “I document therefore I am” in this chaotic online world where sharing information is confused with intimacy, getting attention with being understood and large, invisible audiences with real companionship.

Is conversation itself becoming obsolete?

Lest you think of me as a nostalgia nut, a grumpy crone who loves to talk about the way things used to be, let me clarify that this phenomenon cuts across generations and age groups. Something that finally unites us as humans, technology optimists say. At the speed of Wi-Fi, and with our smartphones as portals and best friends, we can leapfrog out of any given moment, cheat the rigid constraints of time and space, and dart between here, elsewhere and everywhere. We can also take people with us wherever we go, anytime, anywhere. A magical transcendent state, really. But like all good magic, this gift of omnipresence comes with consequences. The seductive, siren song of the ever-present online world, reduces our willingness to stay put, wherever we are, with whoever we happen to be with, yanking us out of the moment at will, without as much as a “may I”.

Smartphones are reprogramming our minds sneakily, says tech writer and journalist Justin Pots, making us respond to its persistent rings, bells, tinkles and bleeps with a reflexive strength that would alarm even Pavlov’s dog. Off we go, following their elusive trail, like swiping, button-pushing marionettes, grazing in multiple pastures as we studiously ignore the people and goings-on around us. The twitchy movements of our phones are that itch we feel compelled to scratch, the fix, the drug, the pill, the high, the guilty sideways glance that makes all the bad stuff go away, like emptiness, boredom, loneliness, the grimy work of being in the real world, in the here and now, and truly connecting with the people around us. Pots, who has remarkably abstained from buying himself a smartphone, writes in his piece, Why this Technology Writer Doesn’t Own a Smartphone, “If you love that, great, but it’s not for me. I love people, and want to focus on them when I’m with them. I love the mountains, and want to focus on them while I’m hiking with them. I love my wife, and want to focus on her when I’m with her.”

When we interrupt the flow of a face-to-face interaction to check our phones, text, transmit, take a picture, or Google, we’re not just being rude. We’re momentarily logging out for the conversation, putting ourselves and the people around us on pause, making them less important, and diminishing the quality of our in-person relationships, one text, glance, and click at a time. But why should we care? Because it is in this uninterrupted, undocumented, seemingly ordinary moment of talking and listening and observing and simply being that other riches like the beginnings of intimacy, empathy, understanding and yes, that much abused ‘sense of connection’, lie.

Let’s face it, technology has made us lazy. It turns us into the equivalent of that guy hanging out at the bar who thinks it takes too long and is just too bloody difficult to chat up the pretty girl standing next to him, and would rather rifle through the countless Tinder profiles on his phone, hoping to get lucky. Worse, he probably hasn’t even looked up long enough from his obsessive swiping to notice her. Unwilling listeners, too impatient to take the time to draw each other out, and too frightened to take the risk of being all too real and human, we prefer to collide with the online identities of others — a neat, reducible sum total of likes, pictures, albums, group memberships, status updates and inspirational quotes. Life online looks more manageable, less bewildering; conversation way more doable, less messy and intimate, when hash-tagged, Instagrammed and retweeted. But then, it is also less meaningful. More shallow, less deep.

But it is not a matter of choosing one over the other — the online world is a miracle, but so is life.

I am not suggesting that we have stopped communicating. Oh no, we’re compulsive communicators alright, brilliant at cataloguing every inflection, breath, feeling and thought as it occurs. It’s the quieter cousin of thought, reflection, which needs to be put on some endangered list. Reflection happens when we step back, take in the world and absorb it without too much filtering, for later contemplation. Sometimes, it can be a solo activity, but it is way more productive and fun to do with friends, lovers and strangers. Great, good, longish conversations had in leisure, where we truly speak to one another without repetitive interruptions, where we get to riff off one another like a long jazz improvisation, strengthens our capacity to reflect and empathize. By leisure, I’m not referring to the party or vacation type of free time, but the one Josef Pieper describes in his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture: “the stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; …the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.”

Talk isn’t cheap and reflection and leisure aren’t pointless — they let us be human. Not just a regular homo sapien, but a compassionate, self-aware, mindful one. Through the hot discomfort and vivid pleasure of real encounters, real life and real friendships, we get to meet our flawed, broken, genuinely interesting selves through the people around us. In turn, we get to see and love them for who they really are, past the sea of projections, perceptions and illusions we thrust on them.

But it isn’t a matter of choosing one over the other — the online world is a miracle, but so is life offline. I am not suggesting we go all paleo and shun technology with all its remarkable conveniences. But let’s not downplay the worthy pursuit of the raw, uncut, unedited, undocumented life that is equally, if not more, enchanted.

Which brings me back to the matter of tea. I propose that we turn our daily cup of tea into a strictly offline liaison, a device-free activity. Better yet, let’s be daring and make ourselves a bunch of teatime friends. Or just one. With whom we can lose our self in the tidal waves of conversation, swirling with revelations and discoveries, and leave our scheming, multitasking, texting behind, if only for a brief snatch. Let’s make tea a prop, instead of our phones and devices, to help us relax in solitude and in company. Let it be the anchor which brings our butterfly selves back from whichever distant world we happen to be fluttering through, home to ourselves, for a short respite. And when we are brimming with the fullness of life and good cheer, let’s, at some point, stroll over to wherever we’ve stashed away our smartphones and post about it.

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