The lost art of conversation: how we forgot how to make small talk
When was the last time you had a proper conversation? One not over WhatsApp or Bumble, or a brief catch-up about the weather with the barista in Pret? But a two-way exchange about something meaningful?
Although studies on whether the quantity of face-to-face conversation in today’s society is in decline are inconclusive, the quality of interaction has unanimously taken a hit. It’s clear our habit of communicating via social media, emails and dating apps is promoting a lack of empathy and increasing mental health issues. A survey by The Prince’s Trust found 22% of 16-25 year olds in the UK didn’t feel they had anyone to talk to about their problems when they were growing up. While we’re all too ready to fire off our views at people, when it comes to genuinely listening and empathising, there’s pretty much zilch.
There are myriad things to blame for the conversational collapse, and the crux of it all is we’re too time-poor. London is an agitation of plans and people, making the idea of a good old-fashioned chat seem like a relic from a previous era. “Modern life is pulling us away from making deep human connections,” says Rob Kendall, author of Blamestorming and founder of conversationexpert.com. “We’re a nation of diary-fillers and hat-wearers, dealing with and condensing the daily mass of information, which pulls us towards speed and expediency rather than depth.”
While we’re undoubtedly more connected it is, counter-intuitively, making us more isolated. Baby boomers (and some millennials) remember life without 24/7 tech, yet Generation Z haven’t needed to master the art of conversation, or being comfortable with their brains unstimulated.
Emojis are undoubtedly a simpler way to communicate quick emotion, but at what cost? Superficial updates widen the gulf between personal feelings and what’s being said, losing the subtle nuances of body language, sentiment and experience. Dik Veenman, founder of The Right Conversation, agrees. “Rather than engage with the messy reality of talking, we’ve stopped listening. We interact with sanitised sound bites and not the reality.”
The tech industry has to shoulder some blame. According to Tanya Goodin, author of Stop Staring At Screens and a digital detox evangelist, “Screens and remote digital contact, rather than real relationships, are the default focus of our attention. We retreat into devices to avoid awkward situations; they distract us when we’re bored; entertain us when we’re lost for words. They’re less complicated than people, but ultimately less rewarding.”
Instead of impromptu chats with the people we encounter at the bus stop or while queueing at the bar, we’re turning to the world of online apps and highly-edited messages to help forge new bonds. Even on holidays, people are too busy on Instagram to experience their surroundings and company.
A LITTLE LESS CONVERSATION
“Face-to-face interaction used to be the only option, so our brains are designed around having those kind of conversations,” continues Kendall. “The brain is incredibly sensitive to changes in facial expressions and body language so, as we move towards phone, email and online communication, a lot of it is lost.”
The decrease in communication skills is well-documented. A recent UCLA study suggested children’s social abilities decline as they prioritise virtual contact over face-to-face interaction. After just five days without looking at a digital screen, these same 11-12-year-olds were substantially better at reading human emotions than those who spent hours a day glued to their devices. Further research, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT), found conversation between adults and children between the ages of four and six changes the way the brain forms and is critical to language development.
As well as struggles to make genuine human connections, there’s strong evidence diminished social contact leads to a negative impact on mental health. A 2015 University Of Michigan study found people above 50 years of age who meet friends and family three times a week are half as likely to suffer from depression than those who enjoy virtual contact.
SEEN AND HEARD
The difference between the physiological response to texting and talking is vast. ‘When someone replies to a text message, email or DM, a tiny burst of dopamine (the ‘feel good’ chemical) explodes in our brain”, Goodin explains. “Real-life conversation finds it difficult to match the immediate sensation of these little fireworks. But a deep connection with a soul mate, family member or close friend creates another chemical – oxytocin – the love and bonding chemical, which lasts longer and has more benefits. We have to be patient to build these connections, which is hard in our instant ‘gratification’ world.”
Whether we’re at home or work, with friends or family, it’s likely our experience of truly being heard, or the time and space we feel we have to listen, is minimal. “It’s a strong factor in people’s happiness and mental health, but it’s being lost’, Kendall admits. ‘We get caught up in life and squeeze out the spaces, but it’s there that meaningful conversations happen.”
The main thing is to create opportunities for conversation, suggests Veenman. “Multi-tasking is impossible. Accept that it takes time to talk, so actively clear small amounts to speak with friends and colleagues. Be curious about what others really think and feel; ask them, then listen. Question more, answer less. Remember that one of the most important gifts you can give someone is your attention, so practice giving it.”
Often it comes down to making different habits. If your diary doesn’t allow gaps for genuine socialising, make regular plans, like hosting dinners or book clubs, that enable undistracted conversation.
“In a relationship, it’s about dedicating time to being together and talking,” says Kendall. “Extend the same principle to the workplace, so instead of just talking about actions, ask questions about how people are feeling.”
Another simple shift is to make sure devices are absent. A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center saw 82% of adults felt the way they used their phone in social scenarios was detrimental to conversation. Another from Virginia Tech found their very presence had a negative impact on the level of connection.
Goodin has a fix, though. “Put your devices away when 1-2-1 with anyone and give them undivided attention. We’ve forgotten how to talk to each other thanks to smartphones. The good news is those skills return quickly… as soon as you put down your screens.”
Though buzzy London life with its constant communication has its upsides, “it’s a question of choosing the right channel for the right conversation,” concludes Kendall. “For board minutes or making a plan, text or email is great; for anything meaningful, it’s poor. Happiness is heavily linked to quality, rather than quantity, of relationships — and quality is related to having conversations.”
With mental health awareness across gender and ages on the rise, the need to fix the face-to-face issue grows. It’s simpler to stick to mindless chit-chat, so we need someone willing to go out of their way to ask questions and give others permission to say how they feel. As the ad used to say: it’s good to talk.