Fighting for the 'lost art of conversation'

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Many social commentators lament how the art of conversation is being lost as people prefer to use email, texts and tweets to communicate. But, as BBC Newsnight's Stephen Smith reports, spoken word enthusiasts are fighting back.

Can we talk? It's an invitation to gossip, to dish.

But it's no longer just a rhetorical question. "Can we talk?" has become one of the most pressing social, cultural - even philosophical - issues of our day to some social commentators.

People such as psychologist and professor Sherry Turkle warn that we're in danger of losing the power of speech as we once understood it.

Free minutes

They point to how the mushrooming ubiquity of digital interaction - through emails, texts, tweets and other apps - is replacing conversation, and even degrading our facility for it.

Some mobile phone companies report that many customers no longer use up their entitlement of "free minutes" - instead it's all about the texting and online services

In other words, we have arrived at the extraordinary position in which we have more digital conversations than "real" ones, as borne out by figures from UK communications industry regulator Ofcom.

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Ofcom's 2012 report set out how texting had overtaken talking

Prof Turkle, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been investigating how the smartphone has struck us dumb - or at the very least, mute.

"I ask people what is happening with conversation," she says, "and they tell me: 'What is wrong is it takes place in real-time and you can't control what you are going to say.'

Psychological lockjaw

"What they mean by that is that they'd rather have control and be able to do their little side of the conversation when they are relaxed, when they can edit and also, they sort of want to broadcast their little side of the conversation."

She paints a heartbreaking picture of youngsters who are afflicted with a kind of psychological lockjaw when confronted with the once-everyday experience of talking to another human being on the phone.

How on earth do they date?

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Image caption,
How does young love get off the ground these days?

Prof Turkle says that when boy finally meets girl, having first made contact online, they are supported by friends who act like a boxer's seconds.

In the corner of these putative sweethearts, they offer advice on those all-important final tweets and texts, right up until the moment when old-fashioned speech and body language take over.

But the professor says the young aren't wholly to blame.

Emotionally absent

At least one generation has grown up with phone-toting parents who are emotionally absent - at the playground, over the dinner table: wherever - so distracted are they by their online lives.

But all is not lost.

In the hushed surroundings of a London private members' club, etiquette guru Diana Mather is reviving the gentle art of conversation, one afternoon tea at a time.

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Etiquette expert Diana Mather: "Texting and talking is so rude"

Over sandwiches with their crusts cut off, she enlightens her clients about the right way to embark on small talk, and the even more ticklish dismount.

Ms Mather's tip for exiting a conversation? Why not try something like: "It's been lovely meeting you, but I'm sure you have lots of other people to talk to."

Brownie points

In polite society, it's simply not done to fidget with your phone while chatting, Ms Mather tells me with a shudder.

It shows your interlocutor that they don't have your full attention - and it could well cost you valuable business, not only social brownie points.

"Texting and talking is so rude. It's like me having a conversation with you and a completely different conversation with somebody else - totally ignoring you - coming back to you when I felt like it," she says.


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Image caption,
Older generations are the lowest users of mobile devices for communication, Ofcom reports
  • People in the UK were more likely to text than to make a phone call
  • While 58% of people communicated via texts on a daily basis in 2011, only 47% made a daily mobile call
  • It said the shift away from traditional ways of keeping in touch was being led by young people aged 16-24

Its 2013 report, Ofcom found:

  • Respondents were most likely to use text messages at least once a day to communicate with friends and family
  • More than half (54%) stated that they used text messages to communicate
  • 49% said they communicated face to face and 45% using voice calls on a mobile

You might imagine that separating Spencer Kelly, the presenter of the BBC's gadget show Click, from his mobile would require an industrial-strength solvent.

In fact, he jokes that it's only a matter of time before he becomes curmudgeonly about technology.

The trouble is that much of it is so "irritatingly convenient" that we can't help adopting it.

He believes it has made conversation "wider, shallower and longer".

'New conversation'

We are in touch with more people but our correspondence is also more clipped; that said, over time a text or email thread can become the modern equivalent of a 19th Century exchange of letters, albeit rather more terse and perhaps less well punctuated.

Like the Click host, Oxford academic and author Theodore Zeldin has identified a "new conversation".

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Theodore Zeldin invites strangers to pick topics from a menu

For him, it's the opposite of traditional parlance: chit-chat intended to oil the wheels of social intercourse.

The new conversation seeks nothing less than to know the world by means of a thorough-going understanding of other people, and this can be achieved by talking to them at length about thought-provoking matters.

"The old [conversation] was to pass the time, to show respect, to do what etiquette demanded," Mr Zeldin explains.

Closely guarded recipe

"The new conversation has a different purpose - it is to discover who other people are. Our goal now is to know who inhabits the world, individually, one by one."

Under the auspices of Mr Zeldin's Oxford Muse project, strangers are invited to converse with one another on topics chosen from a menu.

It's a closely guarded recipe, to preserve the wow-factor, but suffice to say the subjects up for discussion among his volunteers include their fears - and loves.

The mainly 20-something participants whom we met said the session was a stimulating change from being in the pub with their mobile-fixated friends.

It's certainly an admirable experiment, but watching these bright, young things filling an elegant salon in Oxford with their talk, I was struck by how old-fashioned, even quaint, it might appear to some.

In other words, the conversation was in danger of becoming what antique dealers call a conversation piece.

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Watch Stephen Smith's Newsnight film in full

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