Tag Archives: conversation

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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. 


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.

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Broadcasters and Receivers


 For any broadcaster, “dead air” is an embarrassing professional lapse. And so the goal is always to monopolize the channel. 

Modern electronic media began nearly 100 years ago with two clear reference points.  If you were issued a license, you could be a broadcaster. Your transmitter sent content along a channel in the region’s electromagnetic spectrum reserved exclusively for the station’s use. This is still true for local entities such as WABC-TV in New York or Philadelphia’s WXPN radio.  Commercial broadcasting began in the 1920s when Americans were eager to consume content sent into the “ether.” That pattern put us on a long path toward becoming involuntary spectators to the performances of others.

I keep coming back to this basic idea when I think of humans and their preferred communication styles.  Some—let’s say too many—prefer to be broadcasters. They are comfortable devising content they believe others need to hear.  They are “on” continuously and mostly without pause.  The disinhibitions of alcohol can make the pattern even worst. Others of us are receivers, often by choice, and sometimes because broadcasters rarely offer breaks that would allow sufficient time for the functions to reverse. You know the feeling if you are at a party and a 50,000-watt broadcaster crosses your path. They may see themselves as having a clear channel that must never go silent. For any broadcaster, “dead air” is an embarrassing professional lapse.

I confess to sometimes being a broadcaster.  In education it’s called lecturing. I am probably too certain that I have important things to say. But I understand that a good teacher must also hone their skill as a receiver. Unless you are accompanied by a 10-piece band and a juggler, one-way communication offers diminishing returns. Broadcasters frequently misread the patience of others as signs of their brilliance. They flourish from the goodwill of conscientious listeners.  Such listening is all the more remarkable since those doing it get few rewards for the courtesy of their interest.

Maybe you have escaped the experience so far, but the news that you will be spending time with a group of compulsive talkers may mean that the broadcasters among them will have already programmed the entire evening. Your efforts to jam their channel can easily fail, forcing a decision about how Soviet you want to be in disrupting their dominance.

There just aren’t many ways to silence these full-time transmitters, let alone turn them into effective receivers. The natural informality of conversation especially makes it hard to preserve an adjacent channel for weaker but worthwhile signals coming from others. Even so, there are at least a few desperate gambits that may momentarily knock a broadcaster off the air:

-Express amazement that they managed to arrive on two flat tires.

-Mention the contagious disease you can’t seem to kick.

-If it is their affair, ask them if the dining room chandelier always emits sparks and smoke when it is on.

-Tell the broadcaster his hair is on fire.