Talking up Empathy

Everywhere we go, we see people immersed in their mobile devices – at work, on the street , in families, among friends.  The popular notion of the ‘digital detox’ indicates that this is not altogether a good thing.

In her rich and eloquent book Reclaiming Conversation  MIT professor Sherry Turkell explores the negative effects of constant connection to digital devices.  It is a stirring wake-up call and highly instructive in getting us to think about our own relationship with technology and where we may be missing out.

Turkell wants us to be aware of just what it is that we risk losing so that we can begin to find a better way to live with technology.

Empathy killer
Nobody set out to make this happen, but the use of mobile devices seems perfectly designed to destroy empathy.  People need conversation to develop as individuals, to form relationships and to find meaning. But as people increasingly communicate through devices, conversation is replaced by mere connection.

It is by paying attention and making eye contact that you connect with the feelings of others and begin to understand the impact that your behaviour – cruel or kind – has on them.  For example, people seem able to say abusive things online that would be difficult to say in person. In fact, many younger people find it hard to recognise emotions in others.

Even time alone is not sacred.  People don’t want to be bored or on their own with uncomfortable thoughts and instead turn to the phone for stimulation.  They are less able to enjoy solitude and are less likely to gain the insight, wisdom and understanding – of self and others – that comes from calm reflection on experience.

The quality of attention is important.  It is by listening to others that we make ourselves heard. And online contact is just no substitute for face to face conversation when we want to build trust, close a deal or apologise.

Divided Attention
The moment a mobile device appears, the mood changes.  People dip in an out of the chat as their attention constantly strays to the device. And because attention is divided the nature of the conversation changes too.  Topics become more superficial.  People are less able to dwell on thoughts and develop complex ideas.

In fact, in many social situations, what is on the phone – messages, updates, jokes and shared photos – becomes the topic of conversation.  This may be fun and engaging but it is often at the expense of deeper conversation.

A similar thing happens in business meetings.  It has become common for people to sit round the table checking their e-mails and not really paying attention unless it is their turn to speak, which largely negates the point of a meeting.

The flight from conversation is reinforced by ‘hot desking’ and home working.  People surround themselves with gadgets – arrays of laptops and mobile devices – then put on the earphones and work in isolation.  Gossip at the water cooler and informal discussion are crowded out.  Yet Turkell’s research shows that it is organisations where conversation thrives that tend to be more successful.

More importantly, this intrusion also happens within families where the ‘sacred spaces’ that provide the opportunity for significant conversations – family meals, car journeys or children’s bath times – are compromised by mobile devices.

Children know that they are missing out on something when they do not have the undivided attention of a parent.  And parents too have an awareness that they are not doing the best by their children.  The time together is less rewarding if they are not fully present.

Why it’s hard to stop
The nature of the experience is compelling and rewarding.  By tuning into the ‘feed’ of e-mails, texts, social media updates, etc., we feel connected and affirmed.  The illusion of multi-tasking makes us feel powerful and in control even though we are less productive.

There is an illusion of flow, but it is reactive rather than the flow of purposeful activity. People can feel overwhelmed and stressed by the need to respond and keep up to date for fear of missing out.

Digital platforms have a commercial incentive to keep you hooked so that they can sell more advertising.  Feeds shaped by algorithms that learn from your behaviour aim to ensure that what is presented to you will be hard to resist. The tailoring of the feed that seems helpful also serves to suck you in.  Your focus narrows, your peripheral vision shrinks and you lose sight of life as it is happening.

It’s not easy to just say no.  In order to get their work done, some resort to the technical fix of blocker software, which restricts access to the internet or particular social media sites.

Behind the mask
A further twist is that exchanges have in many case become  less spontaneous and more artificial. In online profiles people naturally tend to post somewhat idealised versions of themselves.  But a similar effect is also at work in text based exchanges, which also become a kind of performance.

There is a generation that is more guarded and prefers to communicate with text messages that they can edit and hone before sending.  They maintain a cool and polished persona, which is not necessarily a true reflection of who they really are. It seems too risky to operate in real time where they don’t feel in control and might be ill at ease, or vulnerable to making ‘mistakes’. They are  reluctant to encounter others face to face or even talk on the phone.  Where it would be natural to an older generation to have a conversation they would rather compose a text message.

What should we do?
The message is that we need to act now to reclaim conversation before the robots take over and before we lose the art of developing relationships.  Conversation is nature’s empathy app. We need to be more judicious in our use of our devices and create more device-free spaces where conversation can again flourish.

We can also reclaim some of the time that is lost to engaging with technology. Instead of sending that text, we can pick up the phone or go and meet in person.  We’ll probably get more done in less time … and find it more rewarding.

Jo Ouston