A Conversation About Conversations

The regional rail station was the first stop on my 2-hour journey to Washington where I would deliver a talk on the art of conversation. Twelve people sat spaced on various benches, wrapped in warm winter garb that would shield them from the impending 2 feet of snow due to visit the Northeastern corridor of the U.S.. My rail station sits behind a little shopping village in a small town outside of Philadelphia --in a town that considers itself a tight knit neighborhood. But in this place on this day, 8 of the 12 present were fairly aloof -- looking down at their phones, engaging in no eye contact with one another, with no words to fill the silence. No one even kvetched about the weather.

I gave the speech I was about to deliver the somewhat provocative title, "Talk Back" to demonstrate, in a punnish kind of way, that talking back and forth is a basic human trait that is critical if we are to help children develop a strong foundation for literacy and formal schooling. Language is central to our narrowing the 30-million word gap between middle and low-income children, is important for early reading success and is a cornerstone for high quality preschool interactions. Science tells us that having conversations with children will help them build rich vocabularies that are nested in meaningful narratives. Our challenge is to nurture more conversations in our homes and schools as we build foundational language skills.

I was mentally rehearsing my message from my new perch in the Ardmore train station and it suddenly occurred to me that this was not merely a problem of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, but of everyday people who are living their lives in 2015 glued to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds. My talk was centered on young kids, but perhaps one answer to the questions raised in my talk was blatantly evident at the train station. Parents are not talking to kids because no one is talking to anyone! We have lost the art of conversation between real people who occupy a common space.

I had certainly noted this phenomenon before. My 20-something son intermittently gazes down during our dinner conversations when he hears the faint "ding" of a text message. Always alert to the digital heartbeat, he can promptly respond to "friends" even if a life-sized waiter is standing patiently expecting his order. Our email addictions compel us to sneak a peek several times as we wait in line to pay for our groceries. Eyes gaze down when we are crossing busy streets, traveling to never before seen sights, or walking quickly through crowded corridors. We literally bump into people and see right past them. It's as if living, breathing, sentient humans in our orbit are invisible. What are the consequences of being social online, when we are not social offline?

Two hours later, I recounted this mundane observation as I gave my lecture on how we need more conversations in our lives. People seemed to be engaged but I did wonder how many people were sneaking a peek at their phones. And I think I made the case that we really do need to talk more to our kids. But all along, I guess I also knew that this was not just about kids.

My colleague Mike Tomasello says that we are ultra social. It is our claim to fame as a species -- our uniquely defining feature even when compared to our furry evolutionary cousins. And as social creatures, we need each other. We learn better from people than we do from machines - even from avatars. Tons of research suggests that we enjoy social interactions like conversing, dancing, partying and drinking with friends. Yet we spend our time alone on devices, loosely connected even when we are amidst our social kind.

Maybe the juxtaposition of giving that talk and of being in that station was a wake up call. Maybe it is time to challenge ourselves to have a conversation about conversation.