Human beings are communicating more often and with more people than ever before, thanks to the digital devices we are all but tethered to. But the art of conversation is in decline. MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, who has devoted her career to examining the impact of technology on human interaction, lays out some worrying consequences in her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Overreliance on digital communication has not only affected our ability to have effective face-to-face exchanges but has also diminished our capacity for empathy and intimacy. In addition, digital discussions are often less productive and effective than in-person interactions.
We talked to Turkle about the value of human interaction that is unmediated by technology, when to choose talking over texts and e-mail, and how corporate leaders can revive conversation in the digital workplace.
Q: The big trend in business is digital transformation. A major goal is to automate and digitize interactions. What are companies losing in the bargain?
Sherry Turkle: When you want to build trust, when you want to get to know someone new, when you want to seal a deal—these are not moments for transactions, which are fairly blunt and objective instruments for communicating information. These are times for conversations, which are subjective and emotional and enable greater understanding. Good managers need to know when they are dealing with a moment when a transaction is appropriate and when it is a moment for a human exchange. If you try to be transactional when you need a conversation, you are on your way to frustration, disappointing results, and—most often—the need to do it all again.
Q: How has the increase in digital communications affected our ability to talk to each other?
Turkle: We find ways to not have the conversations that count. We would rather keep communication on screens. As one young man told me when I asked what was wrong with conversation: “It takes place in real time, and you can’t control what you’re going to say!” Of course, that is what’s “wrong” with conversation. But, it is also what’s profoundly right with conversation. It is a place where intimacy is born. The link between face-to-face conversation and empathy is strong. There has been a 40% decline in empathy among college students over the past 20 years, with most of that decline happening in the past decade.
Q: Why is face-to-face conversation important in business? Can’t that effectively be simulated using technology?
Turkle: We are creatures designed for broadband, rich, nuanced exchange through our voices and faces. We are inventing new languages on the screen, and we are doing that with invention, wit, and nuance. But in business (as in friendship and love), we are misunderstanding each other—badly. And we are sending 10 e-mails where a brief call would do.
I am a pragmatist. When you need a video link or a call, use these tools. But what I see is people avoiding presence when it is possible.
Q: How can managers make a business case for talking?
Turkle: Research shows that conversation is good for the bottom line. People are more productive, creative, and engaged with their work when they have time for face. to-face talk. Sociologist Ben Waber had employees wear “sociometric badges” that measured their conversational patterns. When people were given coffee breaks together, performance improved. One CEO I interviewed instituted a breakfast meeting for his team. It gave them all an opportunity to share ideas and talk freely. Group productivity increased, and they needed fewer formal meetings.
One “easy” change is to eliminate devices from in-person meetings. The research is clear: devices distract. They diminish conversations and the relationships among participants. Make meetings shorter if necessary. Offer breaks. Designate one employee to notify attendees if an emergency arises. A meeting is a time to meet.
Q: What else can leaders do to encourage conversation amid the pressure to digitize?
Turkle: Make it clear that in your organization being online is not how you show your loyalty. Instead, show that what is valued is an employee who picks up the phone. Visit your colleagues in person. If you talk, others will talk. Also, design the workplace for conversation by creating device-free spaces that encourage it. Help employees work through their terror of real- time conversations by making it clear that revealing your thought process is valued. Finally, be less transactional. Begin an answer to an e-mail by saying, “I’m thinking.” It’s a powerful message. Complicated problems require thinking and then time to talk.
Q: We conducted this interview electronically to accommodate our schedules. What did I miss out on? How about you?
Turkle: We missed out on the chance to know each other better. What we had was a transaction. I took the time to lay out some of my ideas. But you and I are not closer for it. In business, this would not put us in the best relationship to move forward with a project. Now would be time for conversation!