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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Talk Soup

I am becoming more and more convinced that we are in danger of losing the art of conversation.

I mean the ability to talk with one another - in real time - face to face.

Writing 'online' in email, text, tweet, and IM is really not 'conversation'. We talk 'to' one another. In that medium, it's next to impossible to talk 'with' one another.

I'm not saying that online chat, natter, or posting a comment isn't a form of conversation.  It is. Indeed, it's surprising how much you can learn about someone from reading comments and following the pattern of what they have to 'say'.

Neither am I saying that it is completely without merit. I'm simply saying that I think we are coming perilously close to elevating online 'chatting' as a higher form of conversation.

I don't think it is. Indeed, I think it's a poor substitution for an honest to goodness, face to face, in real time way of relating to one another.

You know, watching for and listening to the body language as well as what comes out of someone's mouth.

Hearing the incomplete sentences, dangling participles, and mispronunciations that no program of spell or language check can correct before hitting 'send'.

Trying to determine, while you're listening to the words, what part of the country this person was born, or where they spent their formative years as a clue to why they are saying what they are saying.

Listening to what subject they talk most about and what patterns emerge about what excites them, what ignites their passion, what makes them sad, what they show absolutely no interest in, what they refuse to discuss.

Who does this person remind me of - the way she put her hand to her chin just then like a few of my relatives.

The way he sucks in his breath, looks out the window and scratches his head, choosing his words carefully before he opens his mouth - just the way my father used to do.

Rolling his eyes when she was talking, just like my brother used to do.

And then, discovering how I adjust my pattern of conversation to 'what' is in the room as well as 'who' is in the room.

It's all a very delicate dance, this art of conversation-in-real-time, which we don't get to practice nearly enough since the advent of our increased reliance on electronic communication.

I can't tell you how many times, in this piece alone, I've deleted entire sentences I've written because they didn't express what I was trying to say. Or, didn't have the clarity I was seeking. Or, it was simply  a poorly constructed sentence.

One does not get a chance to do that in conversations-in-real-time. And, I think, that makes us poorer for the lack of color and shade and nuance.

Then again, as a preacher, I know that there is a huge difference between writing for the ear and writing for the eye. I've written lots of sermons I thought were absolutely brilliant, but it failed miserably from the pulpit because I was aiming for the eye and not the ear.

Writing for the ear is like writing music. You never really know how it's going to 'sound' until you start to play it.

I realized, just this morning, that I have begun to 'think' for the eye and not for the ear, so, when I open my mouth, I'm not always sure I have communicated what I intended.

I suspect more and more of us are thinking this way - for the eye and not for the ear. And so we wonder why the impact of what we're saying isn't always what we intend.

Conversely, some things are written for the ear - as if we expect the reader to 'hear' them when they are, in fact, reading them.

The Book of Common Prayer is, for the most part, intended to be read in public prayer. Which is why I find it so dissatisfying to read one of the Daily Offices alone. I miss the sound of the rhythm and the meter of the language, the way its poetry flows into my heart and my soul.

I find myself reading Compline to my pup Theo at bedtime. He's soothed by it, as am I in the reading. Sometimes, I chant the Psalms, which he also likes.

Truth be told, so do I. It's much more deeply satisfying than talking to God, alone in my room.

I suspect this is, at least in part, the problem with religious language. The Anglican Covenant Contract comes immediately to mind.  Most of it is all so much religious gobbledygook. That's because, I think, the authors were writing it as a sermon or lesson. We are clearly being 'lectured' in what it means - for the authors, at least - to be Anglican.

It sounds to the ear of my eye like "Yadda, yadda, yadda." Which is Yiddish for "Nothing, nothing, nothing." Blah, blah, blah.

When I went to England for the 1998 Lambeth Conference, I quickly learned that most of the British folk I spoke with on public transportation really just wanted to be listened to. I discovered that all I needed to know were three phrases and an Englishman would talk the whole of the day away - or, at least until one of us got off the bus or train.

The first is, "Right". This doesn't mean agreement. It simply means that you get the point they are trying to make. Vary the inflection just a bit and it can be a more or less forceful.

The second is, "Well, there it is, then." By which you mean, "You've made your point." Not that you agree with the point, mind you, but that your companion has made it clear what s/he is trying to say.

The third is like unto it. "Well, and there you have it." Again, it's very polite, but pointless, except for letting your companion know that you have been listening and engaged in what s/he is saying.

Now,  there is absolutely nothing in the world wrong with leaving that script and more fully engaging the person's thoughts or opinions with some of your own.

You don't have to, mind you, but you can if you wish. If you chose to simply consider your companion's thoughts, you can still engage in the conversation by letting him or her know that you are actively listening.

There is something to be said for this, actually.

This is all part of the art of conversation - active listening, which is not just about words. 

You can't get that from chatting online - which is decidedly, sadly, one dimensional.

Me? I much prefer a good, hearty 'talk soup', complete with a dash of tone, a few sprinkles of inflection, a soup├žon of eye contact, and thickly sliced chunks of body language all floating in the spicy broth of human interaction.

Like any good soup, it gets better over time, allowing all the different flavors of the various ingredients "marry" each other until you have a rich, hearty blend that is ever so much more satisfying than the thin broth of a posted comment or an Instant Message or Text Message.

Then again, all I may have actually revealed in this little post is just how conservative and old fashioned I am about some things.


Well, there it is, then.

And there you have it.


whiteycat said...

A friend and I were discussing this very topic this morning. Young people particularly shy away from face to face conversation. I know of two young folks who sit silently in the same room and text each other. That's scary!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I've seen two people walking down the street, side by side, each having an animated phone conversation with someone else.

I can only scratch my head.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, Elizabeth, you've forced my hand about showing my geekiness about the word "Yada." It probably has some of its origins in the Hebrew word YDA, which actually means "to know carnally." I keep wondering if it's one of those ways Hebrew gets turned around to use the word in the exact opposite of the know, like the Biblical reference of "feet" for "Genitals."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I confess that my Yiddish lessons were learned on the streets in NY, Brooklyn and da Bronx.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, imagine what an uphill battle it's been to master Yiddish when you're a 5th generation rural NE Missouri redneck, and your best Yiddish teacher was a Harvard-educated pathologist by way of the St. Paul, MN branch of the Tribe!

I guess you could say he taught me my Hebrew and Yiddish scholarship across a two headed surgical pathology scope.

"There's schmata all over this desk and schmutz on my eyepieces!"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Schmata a schmutz? Oh, my. You are definitely at the 'advanced' level.