The other day, I was sitting in the drawing room and having a chat with my teenage son and daughter. It was a rare phenomenon - I have a full-time job and both of them are busy with their own agendas (my son is appearing for his 12th Boards and my daughter is trying to set up her own design shop). We began with general catching up about studies, a new show on Star World and a "what would you like to eat for dinner" kind of conversation. Ten minutes in and I could see that it was a struggle to keep the conversation flowing; in the next five, their heads went down and the screens of their mobiles lit up and I lost their attention.
The situation is no different when you have some guests over and you so eloquently introduce your children, hoping they'll take the cue and manage at least a few sentences of intelligent conversation. But there is no use building up your hopes...after a brief hello they'll just carry on with their own lives. silently hoping they'll be left alone. This phenomenon isn't true just for cross-generational conversations. I have noticed that even cousins and relatives in the same age group communicate more and more monosyllabically.
This is in sharp contrast to my growing-up years where everybody just talked for "time-pass". The community spirit of the 80s meant that it was so easy to strike up a conversation. The gali, nukkad, aangan, chaubara, the neighborhood paan shop were hubs for hours and hours of free-flowing discussions. Not to forget the quintessential Indian train journey where 24 hours would whiz past whilst talking and bonding with total strangers and happily sharing home-packed tiffin-dabbas. Men would ponder over politics and philosophy and women would swap aachar and papad recipes or discuss their children. As teenagers, we would pontificate at length about school teachers, the boys next door, garish neighbourhood aunts or just about any kind of gossip.
Irrespective of the place or time of the day, it was easy to generate sackfuls of conversations in just a few hours of being together.
These social niceties used to bridge the gap felt by the reserved or the more awkward among us. As soon as one person started talking on any topic, it gave an opening for further conversation that everyone could join.
But all that has changed now. We no longer give the art of conversation the respect it is due. Omnipresent and all-pervasive, mobile phones have hijacked our lives. And this is not just when we are awake. The blinking red light at night indicating a new message is creating sleep and mood disorders for many.
As you walk into the office, colleagues are so busy with their machines that few have the time to look up and wish a simple good morning. It's as if people are concerned about appearing too nice or too free! If you have a new joinee in the office, beyond a brief hello, you don't see anyone initiating general chitchat to ease the person into his/her new workplace. Surely, it is just basic manners (and social etiquette) to make a person feel welcome. The funny thing is that if you take the initiative and start making conversation, most people are nice and friendly. I wonder why they are so reluctant initially.
Are we losing our basic social skills and the art of conversation? It is a pity since conversations play many important roles. They help us in forming relationships, in deepening bonds and in letting others know that they are genuinely cared for. Whether it's a daily tete-a-tete or an exchange between long-lost friends, conversations become fond memories to hold on to. They are what give marketers sleepless nights. You will still see companies feel uneasy when the term "word of mouth" gets mentioned. It is for good reason too. No matter what efforts you make to woo customers, a little negative comment or a stern warning by a well wisher is enough to stop others from making a purchase; worse, they may spread the word among many others too.
I'm not alone in my concerns. Even Pope Francis in his annual message for the church's World Communications Day this year said, "The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information."
Mobile and social media while at one level has helped people in distant places stay connected, it has also enabled others to escape and avoid at will. The absence of visible emotions in interactions has given an opportunity to text one thing and mean something entirely different, giving rise to shallow and superficial friendships. After all, there is no fear of exposure.
This trend has an inherent danger for the young. Developmental psychologists studying the impact of mobile device use (see for example here) worry especially about young people, not just because kids are such promiscuous users of the technology, but because their interpersonal skills have not yet fully formed. Most adults were fixed social quantities when they first got their hands on a text-capable mobile device, and while their ability to have a face-to-face conversation may have eroded in recent years, it's pretty well locked in.
MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle is one of the leading researchers looking into the effects of texting on interpersonal development. Turkle believes that having a conversation with another person teaches kids to, in effect, have a conversation with themselves - to think and reason and self-reflect. That particular skill is a bedrock of development. And too much texting, Turkle warns, amounts to a life of "hiding in plain sight." And the thing about hiding is, it keeps you entirely alone.
I am sure that we do not want subsequent generations to become aloof and lonely, and lose the need to create better relationships by short-changing the complexity and messiness of human communication.
So let's start when there is still time. Like a new skill, it might take time to learn or rather re-learn but let's do it now, before we end up becoming a virtually adept but a socially inept generation.