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The ‘death’ of conversation

Travelling in an air-conditioned second class train compartment recently, I observed that people do not talk to strangers anymore. While this might be de rigueur in some parts of the world, in India it is absolutely acceptable to talk to strangers in public spaces. This could be while travelling together, while standing in a queue or trying to achieve a common objective.

Why was nobody having a conversation with me? I tried to figure out. Maybe because I was a woman and my mostly men co-passengers did not want to appear ‘over-friendly’. All right, but they were not talking to each other either. I tried to break the ice by sharing the latest news loudly, “Oh no, Jayalalithaa passed away.” This did generate some interest and two men looked up and said, “That is really sad.” A few people just shook their heads with regret and then there was silence again. At this point, I just gave up and accepted the fact that the rest of the journey would be spent in silence.

Although this might give the impression that I am some sort of a chatterbox wanting to converse incessantly, it is far from the truth. I love solitude, periods of being quiet and introspective, but I also love having a good conversation. In my opinion a good conversation is one which provides me with new knowledge, leads to intellectual stimulation, or it could just be an engaging story or anecdote which makes for wonderful listening.

In the train compartment most people were immersed in their smartphones, and the ones who did not have one looked disinterested and dull. I had two theories why people were not talking. Theory number one: the ones who had smartphones were not seeking conversation. And, those who did not perhaps had lost the art of conversing amidst them. Theory number two, also the more unpalatable and heartbreaking one, could be that I had somehow left my co-passengers repulsed by either my appearance or some other unknown reason.

Whatever the truth was, it resulted in a scenario which was a far cry from my childhood days when families conversed over peanuts and chai on a train journey. Food was shared and appreciated, and recipes were exchanged. Parenting tips were shared. Household remedies for cold were discussed. Lifelong friends were made. Marriage proposals were exchanged. It was almost like a picnic with strangers. Unlike today, there were limited avenues to stay connected, but the people were truly connected in that moment as they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

This led me to another thought: While technology has connected people more than ever before, we are increasingly getting ‘disconnected’ with those who are in close proximity to us. Technology is a wonderful thing. I was really excited to be connected to my school friends from Kuala Lumpur after a gap of over 20 years. Imagine the thrill of finding out that the boy who was my sworn enemy and with whom I had ruler fights in Class V, actually had a huge crush on me for the entire three years I lived in Malaysia. His behaviour was merely a cover-up for his feelings. Had Facebook not existed, this knowledge would have been lost to me forever.

It would be wrong to assume that people are glued to their gadgets only in public spaces. This phenomenon has permeated the home as well. Increasing numbers of people are eating food while watching television. Dining tables are not utilitarian anymore but serve only a symbolic purpose of adorning the dining room. The scope for conversation is thus greatly reduced as often dinner is the only time the family gets together. In spare time, the allure of surfing the Internet for hours is far more than having any meaningful conversation. As I keep telling one of my friends, he is “caught in the net”. He tells me to work on my sense of humour.

In recent times, WhatsApp has been added to this list of favourite pastimes. I started using this tool with the intent of interacting with my globe-trotting friends but was soon half-heartedly pulled into other groups. I now find myself the victim of tasteless jokes and ‘knowledgable’ forwards that exhort people to avoid certain types of food because of the presence of chemicals or some other deadly poison. If I followed them sincerely I would be nearing starvation by now. On birthdays and special occasions, close friends called up to wish and we would catch up on a few minutes of conversation. Alas, even that happiness has been snatched away as people now choose to wish each other through WhatsApp.

Married folks are in extremely strong relationships with their smartphones, laptops and tablets. Real companionship and deep conversations are often sacrificed in the interest of these gadgets. In extreme situations, it may even lead to weakening of relationships or ‘dead’ relationships.

My father sums this up thus: “There is no romance left in today’s generation. Husband is sitting in one room doing ‘khattar pattar’ on the laptop and wife is sitting in another room doing ‘khattar pattar’. They don’t share their daily routine, their worries or their happiness anymore. They just have transactional conversations about running the house, the maid, and the milkman.” He signs off dismissingly saying, kya ajeeb log hain (what weird people).”

At work, emails are used to resolve issues that can be fixed easily over a conversation. I have always sensed a general aversion to talk to each other in work spaces. People feel comfortable dealing with contentious issues hiding behind emails. In fact, in such situations it might often be more important to have a telephonic or face-to-face conversation. In the absence of such personalised interactions, relationships may often suffer at work too.

The boundaries between home and office have also blurred. Most people I know are connected 24/7 with their work, checking emails on their fancy devices. Someone I know even argued that it takes the pressure off him as he is on ‘top of things’. I asked him if he was into mountain-climbing. I was again asked to work on my sense of humour. I only know that every precious minute spent on checking an email is eating into quality time with family. There can be no real conversation if one is not ‘in the moment’.

I would be conscious to not focus disproportionately on technology because conversation as a dying art is also a sad outcome of the kind of people we have become. A good conversationalist needs to be genuinely interested in others and possess decent listening skills. However, we are living in an age of individualism and narcissism. In addition, conversationalists need to be non-judgmental, focus on positives and not be combative. There is a need to be tolerant and we are living in times of increasing intolerance. One of the prime reasons I stopped watching news channels: the debates that bring several knowledgeable people together inevitably degenerate into a melee which produces sound akin to a fish market. In the struggle to voice one’s own views, there is no patience to listen to the other and often contrarian view. This can be called anything but a conversation.

Therefore the individual traits that are necessary for a good conversation to flourish are increasingly becoming rare in our society, and naturally good conversations are hard to have. Technology only provides an interesting diversion.

In this age of ‘being connected’, people are feeling increasingly lonely. An Internet search on ‘statistics on loneliness’ will throw up the data. ‘Rentable friends’ are now a reality in some countries where people pay by the hour for companionship. It is also being said that sex with robots will be a possibility and a socially accepted practice in near future.

Society and individuals will evolve with changing times. Technology will continue to play an increasingly important role in our lives in the years to come. Passing the blame on to technology is the easiest thing to do, but how we choose to use technology is an individual decision. In an attempt to be connected with the world at large, are we getting disconnected with the people who mean the most to us? This is a question worth pondering over.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 1:19:17 PM |

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