In the early 1990s there was an advert on UK television for talking. It was ostensibly for BT, by far and away the UK’s largest phone operator, but it wasn’t aimed at new customers. Instead it was about persuading existing customers (or more precisely, existing male customers) to use their phones. To talk. To their daughters, their mothers – to anyone, frankly, so long as they picked up a phone and talked. The actor Bob Hoskins, best known for playing a gangster, was the front man, growling the catchphrase “It’s good to talk” with a slight air of menace. “OK Bob, we’ll talk,” the men of Britain said. And they did. The campaign, which ran for five years, supposedly earned BT €5.8bn.
A generation on and there is a new advert on UK television urging people to talk. This time the phone is the villain. A young poet called Sugar J sits in a café, fiddling with his phone, musing on how it can get in the way of real, face-to-face conversation. (The commercial is for a building society, reminding customers that it has branches as well as online banking). The telephone has become the object we turn to in order to avoid talking. We use it to distract, to read and to play – occasionally we use it to talk but more often than not we react with an involuntary shudder if it actually rings. Sugar J – real name Jeremiah Brown – still picks up the phone when someone calls. “We’re losing the art of conversation,” he tells us. “You become an expert in communicating through the phone, constructing the perfect response.” He’s right.
We self-edit. On email, social media and WhatsApp, there’s time to draft a reply, think, delete it and start again. In crafting a witty riposte we lose spontaneity. “You get a lot more in person,” says Brown. “I can see your face, which is more important than words. You may not be able to construct the perfect message but you can get your point across.”
An ocean away, James O’Reilly nods in agreement. Irish-born and New York-based, he is the co-founder of Neuehouse, a shared working space and members club for entrepreneurs and creatives that encourages digital-free conversations. “We are overwhelmed by the abundance of digital connection. I can see what my friends are doing all the time but we’re devoid of any physical connection and we yearn for that. A society that’s getting more individualistic needs to become more communitarian.”
Conversation is not simply about talking though. “The art of conversation has two parts,” says O’Reilly. “One is asking the right questions, the other is actually listening.” When he was a kid, O’Reilly and his siblings would complain if they were stuck at a family dinner next to a relative deemed boring. “My dad used to say, ‘Nobody’s dull, you just haven’t found the thing that lights them up.’ He put it back on us. Find what it is that fuels their heart and mind. If you can’t harness a great conversation with somebody, that’s on you.” At Neuehouse, O’Reilly is doing what he can to prompt others to engage in great conversations. There are areas that are phone-free and events where members are encouraged to talk to strangers. “It happens organically; the act of breaking bread and sharing a meal is something that’s so instinctual and human.”
The digital overload is not a new problem but it’s becoming more urgent. We connect but we don’t converse. There are too many tabs open on our laptops, too many push notifications on our phones. When conversations – real face-to-face conversations – actually take place, too many of us are present in body but not in mind. We are also losing the incidental conversations with strangers, the serendipitous chats with the man in the queue or the woman at the till. Our heads are buried in our phones; we’re afraid to spend even a moment undistracted and alone with our thoughts, and rarely open to the idea of conversing with a fellow human.
This all leads, as Sherry Turkle describes in her book Reclaiming Conversation, to a loss of empathy. The problem has become most striking, she argues, in families. “Parents give their children phones,” Turkle says. “Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then parents use their children’s absorption as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.” The fix is both straightforward and, if we’re being honest, difficult to enact: “Accept your vulnerability,” she says. “Remove the temptation.” Indeed, a sizeable telecoms company based in Bonn has even developed a game that demands players put their phones down or lose the match. Imagine such thinking from a telco.
But there is a sense that a shift, a rebalancing, is underway. Businesses are realising that they need to see and hear their customers. Every marketing company is suddenly seizing on the “conversation” word and promising to reconnect businesses with customers who have become nothing but data. Revolts are also happening at dinner tables, where people are finally ignoring the demanding texts.
And perhaps we all sense it too: that nagging feeling that we are missing out on talking, arguing, seducing, unburdening, all while looking people in the eye and feeling breath on cheek. We know that something special happens when we talk. So here’s to the fightback becoming a full-scale revolt. It’s good to talk.
Steve Bloomfield is the executive editor of monocle magazine and the host of Monocle 24’s flagship global-affairs programme The Foreign Desk. Previously the Africa correspondent for The Independent, he is also the author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa. (And, naturally, he’s a good talker.)