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Is Basic Conversational Fluency Atrophying?

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We are kidding ourselves if we believe “social media” substitutes for communication in a social world.

It seems that many of us are losing our will or abilities to sustain a genuine two-sided conversation. We now seem to be coaxed into being an audience for the rambles of acquaintances who are desperate for acknowledgment.  When did the idea of engaging in a true exchange with another become so problematic?   The experience is familiar: after an extended time with someone do we notice that we were little more than spectators to their thoughts and feelings.  Some have even mastered the kind of “no breath” ramble that discourages interruptions.

It has always been true that an evening with others might be hijacked by an acquaintance that needs to be heard. Whatever curiosity that could have once existed has been swamped by the conversational equivalent of a filibuster.

This kind of domination of what could be a genuine exchange can come from people in all age ranges. But my experience is that it is most pronounced among older adults who seem to exhibit of a person with fewer chances to have conversational partners. Dustin Hoffman gives us an example in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected )(2017).  His character, Harold, is a needy and aging sculptor, mostly in denial that he is no longer a hot in the fickle New York art scene. Baumbach has given Harold a bundle of declarations spoken into a void. Even his wife and adult children have tuned out.

It’s an old axiom in my field that opinion-giving is a common feature of the male communication style. But I see it more as becoming an equal-opportunity trait. With many exceptions, age seems to drain away interest in others. And so, conversations can devolve into long and unsolicited monologues: reports about what a person has been reading, commentaries or sermons offered but not invited, old stories retold, or the recitation of events in their extended families. Many seem to have forgotten how to share the conversational stage.  At the end of some of these longer performances it is easy to feel like a witness rather than a participant.

If it’s possible that advancing age makes us less willing to do the work of fully engaging with others, the other end of the life cycle poses its own challenges to the idea of genuine conversation. The primary cause seems to be increased self absorption, decreasing opportunities to listen to others with accuracy.

teens and cell phones

As noted here before, the most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, X, and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated, self-contained and intentionally isolating. Many seem to be struggling to acquire the social intelligence needed to display empathy with others or exercise a degree of self-monitoring.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets texting or “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle documents a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grow up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel.

It’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games require various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity or feedback. But the most consequential of all is a pale approximation of intimacy.

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What Reasons-Based Dispute Looks Like

Good counterarguments may slightly raise the chances of receiving a  thoughtful response.

In the previous post I noted that we have evidence suggesting that people do not change their views, even in the face of compelling evidence and counterarguments. One response is to give up and not even bother. Moving on from someone’s rage can preserve our sanity.

A middle course is to imagine what kinds of counterarguments can be made that will raise the chances—if only slightly–of receiving a thoughtful hearing.

Having lived through another multi-year deluge of dubious ideas badly argued, it is good to pause and remember what a more thoughtful exchange of views should look like.

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To begin, in any exchange we would expect contested assertions to be backed up by evidence or evident good reasons. A person interested in rattling off opinions with no reference to sound reasons or evidence is not worth your effort. Even in an informal conversation we expect to hear compelling support for claims. A judge or a responsible policy maker would expect tangible evidence.  But it is true also our classrooms, where student debaters cannot simply offer unsubstantiated claims.

The basic unit of a counter-response is an argument. Its basic structure is simple and contains at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. Those reasons may be widely honored values, or specific examples and–better yet–the testimony of experts who have a history of making accurate statements.  The quality of supporting evidence increases the force of an argument.

The claim “the 2020 presidential election was free of fraud” is a common example.  If I stop there in the presence of a MAGA true-believer, I am uttering a statement that—in formal terms—lacks “force.” To be sure, we are extremely happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. But they have no power to bind doubters.

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How can I meaningfully assert that the last election was fair and accurate? Where is my evidence? I ought to be able to supply it, and not—as the former President does with claims reworded to appear to be reasons. So, if I am making a claim, I ought to be able to put “because” after it and find that the reasons that follow will make sense: will sound right. Our example might unfold in the following sequence.

“The Election was free of fraud.”

                                    Because. . .

  1. The Attorney General in the Trump Administration said so.
  2. The administration’s head of cyber-security said so.
  3.  No state government found evidence of significant instances of fraud.
  4.  Respected journalists covering the election found no significant evidence of a corrupted vote.
  5. A vast array of American courts could not evidence of vote tampering, except for a scattering of Trump supporters (i.e., some fake electoral college delegates).

To be sure, each of these assertions may need their own specifics or testimony. An example for the first claim could include Attorney General William Barr’s own words: “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” As testimony, Barr’s words are especially credible because he is (1) in a position to know, and (2) he is a “reluctant” source, meaning that Barr’s natural bias would be to support the views of the president who appointed him.

Arguments work best with truth claims. What can you do with your Uncle Fred’s assertion that he still “believes” some dead Democrats “voted” in 2020? You can ask him for evidence. But Fred may use the intellectual slight-of-hand of converting a belief into a claim of fact. That is dishonest, but telling him so probably will not keep him up at night. As we have noted before, you cannot usually do much about changing the fantasies that individuals need to believe them.

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