Leadership

Less Tweeting, More Talking Will Bring Back Empathy, Says ASAE Keynoter

By / Aug 11, 2015

Too much tweeting, texting, and posting is creating distance between people and making communication more superficial, according to MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle, speaking to #ASAE15 attendees. To reverse the trend, all we need to do is look up from our devices and remember the joys of face-to-face conversation.

At a conference where the Twitter conversation is a steady drumbeat accompanying every activity, what’s an attendee to do when a keynote speaker tells you to put down your phone and just, well, listen?

That was the question, more or less, that Sherry Turkle raised for her audience in the Closing General Session Tuesday at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Detroit. And while the Twitter stream surely didn’t go silent, it did appear to abate a bit as Turkle, a clinical psychologist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, encouraged a more thoughtful and moderate use of digital communication and a deliberate return to face-to-face conversation.

Turkle’s research into the effects of the digital revolution on human relationships has led her to an ironic conclusion: that while digital technology has enabled a multitude of new ways to communicate and ushered in vast online communities where people connect, it has made it more difficult for people to engage in deeper conversations and form more meaningful relationships with others.

“In our society there is such a preoccupation with getting things right,” Turkle said. “Online we can control our time, we can multitask, and maybe most important of all, we can edit ourselves and get the feeling of getting things right.”

And she isn’t just talking about the times when people are actively engaged in emailing, texting, tweeting, and posting. “The presence of a device already signals that your attention is divided, even if you don’t intend to use it. It will limit how you listen, and it will limit the kind of conversation you have,” said Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other.

The result has been the emergence of a “crisis in empathy,” she said, citing research that measured a 40 percent drop in the markers for empathy among college students in the past 10 years—a finding that researchers attributed to the ubiquitous presence of digital devices.

Face-to-face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

But “we can cure it with conversation,” Turkle said. “Face-to-face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”

Declaring her faith in people’s capacity for empathy (“We’re built to have it, and it will come back”), Turkle recommended a few first steps to “reclaim the conversation”:

Create device-free time and space. In a word: unplug. Given that the mere presence of a device can change the communication dynamic, people need to “respect its power,” Turkle said. “Clear a path for conversation. Create sacred spaces at work and at home for conversation. No devices.”

Dial back on multitasking. “Unitasking is the next big thing,” Turkle said, to a spontaneous burst of applause. She suggested that the tendency to “chase the high” of multitasking is “a human vulnerability that we have to overcome” and cited the urge to respond instantly to constant email interruptions as the classic example. “Give yourself permission to respond to an email by saying, ‘I’m thinking,’” she said.

Obey the “seven-minute rule.” Turkle took this insight from an interview with a college student who had concluded it takes seven minutes to determine whether a conversation will be interesting and worth pursuing. The student confessed that she rarely made it to the seven-minute mark before pulling out her phone. “In a conversation, give yourself those seven minutes. Let it unfold, and don’t go to your phone before the seven minutes pass. If there’s a lull, let it be. Conversation, like life, has silences.”

Ultimately, Turkle said, fostering deeper conversations and relationships will require a little letting go.

“It’s often in the moments when we stumble and when we hesitate and when we fall silent that we most reveal ourselves to each other,” she said. “Digital communication has gotten us accustomed to the edited life. Consider that the unedited life is also worth living.”

Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop is the Editor-in-Chief of Associations Now. More »

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