There are a bunch of studies that claim the secret to a long, happy life is found in the relationships we have with other people. A study published in Harvard Medical School’s online newsletter, for example, says that “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.” The article goes on to say that, “Conversely, a relative lack of social ties is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality…an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.” And yet, we are a society spending more and more time on our smartphones, increasingly tied to technology, and overwhelmingly hooked on social media. I guess my question is whether or not these ways of communicating will, in the long run, produce the same results. My guess is no.
I was at a restaurant recently with a friend. When he excused himself for a moment, I couldn’t help but notice another couple at the bar. The couple was engaged in conversation – but I use the word “conversation” loosely, as it was more a shared experience over something the man was showing the woman on his smartphone. Why did I notice this? And, so what? Well, the reason that I noticed was that in the 10 minutes my friend was gone, the man never put down the phone. In fact, when her eyes would wander away – perhaps to observe something happening in real time – he would pull her back to the tiny screen. I don’t know what they were watching, but it was clear from his reactions that he had seen whatever it was before (and found it funny). She obviously had not. And since the bar was noisy, I doubt she could hear a lick of it.
My observation of this couple led me to look at others around the same bar. Of the 10 people there, seven were doing something on a smartphone. Only one of those seven was at the bar alone. It is certainly reasonable that some of the folks were responding to a sitter who was texting, or to an email that couldn’t wait. But increasingly, we are a society losing our ability to actually have a conversation with others.
If I think about this topic on a broader scale, and think about my own use of technology to stay connected, I am guilty too. I very often feel “in touch” with someone because I’ve read their Facebook status, or shared a simple text back and forth. But if someone were to ask me how that person is – like how they are really doing on a day to day basis – I’m not sure I’d be qualified to answer that question. I could guess based on the photos they’ve posted, or the emoji they chose to send. But I’d be simply guessing.
The art of conversation is just that: an art. It takes effort and energy to generate a conversation that is enjoyable and meaningful. Moreover, it takes a genuine interest in the other person. A conversation that gets past the weather and into something more personal requires that each person is willing to engage, that there is a mutual trust or willingness to share, and that some kind of connection exists or is possible. It is much more complicated than sharing a status or posting a picture, or even watching TV together. Sure, we can watch TV, but if you want to use that experience to generate a connection, you’d better ask me what I thought of the show when it’s over, and then share with me what you thought. Otherwise, I could be watching alone and feeling a lot less unfulfilled when it’s over.
My point is this: the world is full of everyday possibilities to connect with other people. We share experiences and opinions that provide that opportunity. Just being in the same place at the same time is a conversation starter, if you are willing to use it. Does it take energy? Yes. It maybe even takes a little creativity. But in the end – if all of those studies are right – the work (and the connections they foster) just may be a lifesaver.