The Decline of the Dialogical Model

A common view of communication is that it is a process of exchange.  We listen.  We talk. The arrows flow in two directions.  Conversations become sustaining in ways that disembodied messages can’t match. 

                                                 Pixabay

With notable exceptions, the dialogical model of communication is in decline. The persistence of effort required in sustained conversations is in short supply. We find it harder to maintain the attention needed to hear what another is saying, struggling to engage brains that have been rewired to accommodate the pace of  the digital drumbeat. To get my car serviced, I now explain a problem while the service agent enters data on a screen with its own fill-in-the-blanks rubric. Many patients describe the same experience when they see a doctor. And even that minimal level of connection is lost as digital robots take over the customer service functions of more businesses.

Communal spaces designed to encourage easy exchanges between individuals now function as ersatz phone booths. The phones come out as individuals sharing a public space drift into their own informational worlds.  Devices of all sorts have become forms of protection against expending energy in direct engagement.

Even if fewer real bodies ever make it to our front door, our digital threshold is traversed all the time.  And so what is obvious is also consequential: the din of intruding messages are seen as welcome  opportunities to avoid the eyes of another who might expect a response.

Why does the retreat from direct conversation matter?  Innovations can enhance or disrupt our species’ innate inclination to seek relationships with others.  Some can serve as extensions of our natural tendencies for sociality: tendencies that show up in birthright impulses such as empathy and other-awareness.  But personal media often do the reverse as well, pulling us further away from the lives and experiences of others. Smartphones make it easy to mistake the disembodied fragment of another person for the real thing. 

Another sign of the decline of the dialogical model is how quickly we now fatigue of the effort required to sustain attention on another.  Communication has always had a performative function that makes us duty-bound to at least fake interest.  But for many, face time with another hardly seems worth even that minimal effort. Richard Linklater and others may write movie scenes featuring direct and revealing conversations.  That’s the method of his remarkable trilogy about a couple that concludes the film Before Midnight (2013).  But the rich conversational palette of his films stands in stark contrast to a world of Americans with eyes shuttered to the sensate world in favor of the small screen.

The favored pattern now is better represented with self-obsessed figures defined more by their strong interjections than their willingness to be a witness to others in the flesh. The preemptive rhetorical strikes of the President or a stand-up comic seem to reflect the times.  We now have many more models of figures who need to exercise their expressive urges as short judgmental rants. The President’s preferred medium of Twitter come across as shouts issued from a person unaccustomed to listening. They are the functional equivalent of the honk of an annoyed driver, a middle finger raised in a gesture of defiance, or a rant unleashed as a digital “comment.” Each is the same one-way form of communication-as-declamation.

All of this means that our expressive muscles get a workout, much more so than those tuned to the rhythms of another in an authentic conversation. To get conversational muscles back in shape and functioning again, consider a few modest suggestions:

  • Never give preference to a device over another person in the same space.
  • Ask yourself if your ‘screen gaze’ is becoming your public face.
  • See if you can find the time to hear another person out. 
  • Save the tough stuff for a face to face conversation, but… 
  • Find time to also talk about the fun stuff.

Sticking the Landing

Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.

We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway:  Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts.  Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act.  Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination.  Every word reflects a choice.  Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric?  Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough?  And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?

Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.

To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves.  We can almost see their little brains putting it all together.  Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax.  It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.

Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young.  But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.

Some of this prowess  begins to ebb in old age.  And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents.  George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends.  As he knew, the results could be funny.  Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 

4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us.  Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.

What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds.  Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said.  He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic MSNBC

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic

President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute.  He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision.  It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind.  Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.

Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.