Why Face-to-Face Conversation Matters More Than Ever

“We need to move ahead with an attitude in which we can rejoice in technology but stand up for our human needs.”

By Sherry Turkle

Credit: Peter Urban

I come to Thrive’s mission as a partisan of conversation. My special focus is to study empathy in an age of distraction. And quite frankly, empathy is in trouble. Too often we find ways around conversation and go to our phones. We lose touch with what each other are thinking and feeling.

But I’m also feeling optimistic because my research on conversation teaches me that we are at a point of inflection, where we seem ready to change how we behave with technology. Last year, a national study by the Pew Research Center reported that 89% of Americans said they took out a phone during their last social interaction. And 82% said that it it diminished the conversation. My own research on conversational habits gives voices to the statistic: Across generations, we are behaving in ways we don’t feel good about and we are ready to change — at home, at work, in education.

And change can happen because we are resilient. For example, one study showed that in only five days in an environment without phones, young people begin to recover the capacity to respond to nonverbal emotional cues, that is to recover empathic capacity. We don’t need to put special empathy apps on our phones. Talking to each other creates change — we are the empathy app.

I am not anti-technology; I am pro-conversation. We need to move ahead with an attitude in which we can rejoice in technology but stand up for our human needs. We need face-to-face conversation, just as we need sleep, just as we need solitude. I personally think that we had to develop a certain intimacy with information technology before we were ready to reassert ourselves in our relationship with it. And for me, this reassertion has taken on new urgency.

Because somewhat unexpectedly, I now face a period in which I must be politically vigilant. And it is clear to me that to be politically effective, I have to be in better shape in every way. Calm, centered. Physically strong, rested. Not the exhausted harridan who had to take to her bed in the days after the election! I need to thrive for my inner life and my capacity for actions that take me beyond myself. For me, a celebration to thrive could not come at a better time.


Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT and the author of the New York Times bestseller Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.