Plenty of communication, but very little conversation


By Peter Thomson

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A recent forum in Elizabeth City was advertised as a chance to weigh in on what our next school superintendent should be like. The public was asked what qualities, background and forward-thinking we should look for. No one turned up, and the consultants to the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education told us that this was not unusual: in fact it is part of a nationwide pattern of disengagement.

Recently, The News & Observer of Raleigh published an article titled, “Church attendance is down, discord is up.” Then a story in The Washington Post confirmed that over the last 10 years 40 percent of the churches in Washington, D.C. have closed or been sold. David Brooks, in a recent column in The New York Times, also talked about false connections: connections without conversation. He wrote, “The dinner table falls silent as children compete with phones for their parents’ attention. Friends learn strategies to keep conversations going when only a few people are looking up from their phones. At work we retreat into our screens though it is conversation at the water cooler that increases not only productivity but commitment to work. Online, we only want to share opinions that our followers will agree with — a politics that shies away from the real conflicts and solutions of the public square.”

Here we’ve noticed not only a slump in church attendance but increasing difficulty for organizations to gain and keep members. There’s also been a decline in volunteers for many good causes and an increasing willingness of many to simply stay home and retire to electronic numbness. Brooks calls it a “straight up social catastrophe.”

Our country has always been, well… different. Whereas other industrialized countries developed strategies where folks had an extensive government safety net, paid higher taxes and relied upon their government departments to do the necessary, we do not. Rather, we rely upon our neighbors. We have local, regional and national non-profit organizations that do good work, work that in other countries would be done by government, and they are supported generally by contributions from private citizens and corporations. But what happens when the volunteers stop coming and the contributions dry up? That’s what Mr. Brooks is talking about.

In her excellent book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” media author Sherry Turkle writes about folks taking action, about some firms having meetings in which phones and … yes, Apple Watches … are set aside in order that an inclusive conversation take place. She writes that in spite of protest, elite schools now have rules banning cell phones from class and companies are discovering that a business center where conversation can take place is essential to creative growth and makes economic sense. So, there are people working against this growing trend of a lack of engagement as demonstrated by the lack of face-to-face conversation.

And how should we deal with it in Elizabeth City? By taking it seriously, and understanding that this is not a single organization with a problem, or a single class, race or age. It is an epidemic. By organizing rules and programs to encourage people, especially young people, to put down their hand-held computers and join in creative collaboration, we can help let them realize that conversation, even in disagreement, makes one closer to one’s neighbor. After all, you can’t hug a tweet.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.