Money & Business

Sherry Turkle: Why Talk Is Making a Comeback

By / Jun 1, 2015 (Handout photo)

Only now do we seem to get it: Our phone use is out of control. Ditto for tablets and laptops. Ironically, these obsessions are hurting, not helping, real communication. Digital culture expert Sherry Turkle is calling for a return to conversation, “the most human—and humanizing— thing that we do.”

Even the icons of the super-cool TED and South by Southwest (SXSW) conferences had had enough this year. Technology—and the addicted masses using it—had to be taken down a peg.

“In frequent warnings up to and during the conference, posted on much bigger screens and voiced by head TEDster Chris Anderson himself, attendees are warned during talks to put their screens away,” Wired Senior Writer Marcus Wohlsen noted in a blog post at the recent TED2015 conference.

While the usually chill TED organizers banned personal screens in main sessions, SXSW attendees found their tech access more selectively curated. Some meetups, for instance, were promoted as device-free to ensure face-to-face engagement still happened at the hallmark annual event where 500-plus tech innovations and other creative ideas were presented.

If these edgy hosts ignored the irony of a tech-focused gathering reining in use of gadgets intended to facilitate conversation and learning, perhaps your association should, too.

New data supports some harsh conclusions: We are not the great communicators we think we are, whether listening or speaking. Worse, our weaknesses are amplified by our technology addiction—a strong word but apt, considering that people check their smartphones an average of 150 times a day, according to a Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ annual Internet Trends report.

“The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless. We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes,” wrote digital culture guru Sherry Turkle in her 2011 bestseller Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.

Her research warned that our rapid adoption of new communication technologies was transforming human conversation, not always in a good way. Turkle, a clinical psychologist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, called us on it. And reluctantly, we’ve started to nod along.

“We have seen the depth of the problem,” says Turkle. “Four years ago, I was describing a problem people didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to hear they weren’t looking at their children at dinner or on the playground, that they weren’t talking to coworkers, or that there was a new silence in American life. I was bringing bad news, but we were smitten with ourselves then.”

Now, Turkle is more hopeful, having seen signs that our “digital citizenry” is maturing. Even better, she believes associations are well positioned to help “reclaim conversation,” especially in the workplace.

“It’s whether you talk to your colleagues that determines productivity and creativity in a business,” she says. “It turns out conversation is good for the bottom line.”

Although Turkle’s previous research concluded that technology has encouraged low-risk, low-investment relationships—such as those rooted in rampant “friending”—her latest work finds that “associated relationships are the ones that count, and people do want to communicate [meaningfully].”

“We’re at a turning point,” she says. “In terms of communications in our organizations and relationships, we can still take steps to improve things, because we are the consumers of systems being designed for us. We can make demands about what those systems include.”

It’s not that communications I get are so urgent, but it’s like that squirrel your dog sees. You have to run after it once you spotted it, and as long as my phone is on and around, I’m tempted to look at it.

Conversation Reboot

Association leaders are already plugging into that shift. From their own observations, they confirm a startling finding in Turkle’s newest data: The mere presence of technology changes what we talk about, even when we’re chatting face to face. We tend to avoid critical conversations “because we don’t want to be interrupted if the phone is on the table,” she says.

She urges how-to conversations on the value of face-to-face dialogue and on tech-based communications as part of a bigger picture. “By talking about why talk is important,” organizations can create a genuine conversation culture both at work and among members, Turkle says.

Amy Lestition, CAE, vice president of strategic communications and outreach for the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, says people increasingly are aware that they must change harmful technology obsessions. “It’s hard, because your phone is so much more than a phone,” says Lestition. “It’s your GPS system, your camera, everything.” And most office phone systems include instant-messaging capability, so workers feel on call all the time.

“But it’s affecting how we effectively communicate with folks, because we’re not listening as acutely and attentively as we would be without the phone there,” she says. “Critical conversations need to happen, but maybe we shouldn’t be doing them on a mobile phone so much rather than in person. We’re taking the shortcut.”

Jessica Pettitt, a consultant who trains association professionals about holding difficult conversations, says people often compulsively check their phones out of habit or boredom. “The phone can play a role similar to when you’re at a conference, and you look over the shoulders of someone you’re talking to to see if someone more interesting is there, which is rude and dismissive,” she says.

Pettitt is a proponent of “phone stacking,” in which people stack their devices like pancakes on a table corner while eating together. The first person to touch his or her phone before the bill is paid must pay for the entire group. The dynamic shifts immediately, say practitioners.

Robert Van Hook, FASAE, CAE, principal at Transition Management Consulting and a frequent interim association CEO, loves the concept. He acknowledges his own device addiction sometimes interferes with family and work conversations.

“I get called on it frequently, and it makes me sad,” says Van Hook, noting that our member-driven mindset inclines us toward instant responsiveness. “It’s not that communications I get are so urgent, but it’s like that squirrel your dog sees. You have to run after it once you spotted it, and as long as my phone is on and around, I’m tempted to look at it.”

He can blame his brain, according to tech journalist Ben Parr, author of Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention. “It’s not the smartphone that’s addicting,” Parr writes. “The real culprits are the email, text, and app notifications. They grab our attention by triggering a complex mechanism in our brain that powers our motivations and desires” through the release of dopamine.

“Dopamine triggers wanting, which leads to seeking,” he writes.

Academic social scientists studying our device compulsion have developed a new term: technoference. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Brigham Young University who studied married couples say technoference occurs when technology conflicts with the nurturing of relationships. The result is diminished relationships and life satisfaction, as well as more depression, even when interruptions are short or unintentional.

“By allowing technology to interfere with conversations, activities, and time … individuals may be sending implicit messages about what they value most, leading to conflict and negative outcomes in personal life and relationships,” according to the researchers, who also cite Turkle’s earlier work.

Managing Conversation at Meetings

Turkle has encouraging words for associations about the future of conferences. “Amid all the temptation to hold primarily virtual meetings and meetups, remember that people want to get together to gain the support that comes from [in-person conversation],” says Turkle. “Associations must remember that getting people together is not yesterday. That need is not going away.”

Educause, a nonprofit using technology to improve education, takes a balancing approach. “We provide spaces for attendees to unplug from a conference to check email and do a little work, because we understand everyone is still connected and still has a day job. Hopefully, once they put out any fires, they’re back learning with us,” says Chief Operating Officer Thad Lurie, CAE.

Turkle supports scheduling time separate from sessions to do that. “If you’re having critical conversations that matter, and you’re debating whether to have people turn their phones off or not, you’re already in trouble,” she says. “Of course they can’t concentrate on both activities at the same time.”

Pettitt finds a hybrid approach can work well. People text her questions that they’re too nervous or shy to ask aloud in a meeting ahead of time, and she integrates them into her presentations.

Like TED, Turkle forbids devices in her classes at MIT, requiring advance reading so students can focus only on conversation. “Students are relieved,” she says. “It’s permission to be present.”

Van Hook understands. “Anytime anyone says, ‘Turn off your phones,’ I almost feel myself taking a breath and settling in in a different way because it’s so unusual, and I know I’ll experience this differently,” he says.

Exactly, says Turkle. “Now that we see the degree to which these objects have the power to change our way of life, it’s time to be more aggressive in our way of connecting with them. The tone of my new work is less ‘here’s the problem’ and more ‘it’s time for mobilization.’ ”

Kristin Clarke

Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE. More »

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