One day in the grocery store, I noticed long lines at the automated checkout stations while three cashier lanes nearby were empty. I took my groceries to a cashier, a man in his twenties, and asked him why he thought this was happening. Looking over at the line, where several people were checking their phones as they waited, he said, “Most of those people are young. Apparently, people in my generation just don’t much like to talk face-to-face.” And I thought, What if we all forget how to have a conversation?
Now, don’t get me wrong. Technology is important; it keeps us all connected in a way. But while we are more connected now to the whole world than we ever have been before, we are less connected to people in our everyday life. We’re having fewer conversations.
Why is this a problem? We all need someone to talk to. It’s easy to become isolated. A conversation is based on physical presence, which is rooted in feeling. All our senses are involved. By talking to someone in person, we gain access to specific senses: appreciation, compassion, and love. These are the feelings that connect human beings to reality, which stimulates our intuition and awareness. If we become conditioned to the computer, then we become one-dimensional. We are less deep as individuals and more shallow, predictable, anxiety-ridden, and irritable. By not having conversations, we’re forgetting how to feel.
These days, some of us avoid conversation altogether because it requires too much attention. We’re accustomed to being distracted, and we forget how to focus, so we have trouble listening. We may not have time; we’re so busy with school or our responsibilities at work or at home. We may see conversation as a superfluous social gesture. And some of us don’t know how to talk to people because we’ve never been taught.
At the same time, we’ve become more individualistic and opinionated. Because we want something stable that makes sense in the world, we hold on to themes and ideas that are grounding and meaningful. This fixation creates factionalism and polarity. Identifying strongly with our thoughts and emotions, we mistake them for a solid “me,” and then defend that apparition against the world. Social media and the news thrive on these elements. Our digital devices give us a false sense of power, creating a high-tech ego that wants to put its fingers in everything. Yet by having fewer face-to-face conversations, we are simultaneously disempowering the very source that can validate our identity: our relationship with other people.
In addition to being individualistic, our modern society is essentially a society of the anonymous. In earlier times—before the explosion in population over the last 100 years—not having conversations would have been impossible. Not being polite or acknowledging others would have immediate consequences, because we would all know one another. Now it is possible to lead a big part of our lives not knowing anyone or ignoring everyone. We care more about ourselves and less about others, and our ability to be civil is breaking down.
Civility is based on putting another person at ease. An opinionated, self-centered, and distracted mind cannot imagine putting another first. As a result, long established norms of civility, such as respect and tolerance for others’ views, appreciation of the truth, and embarrassment about shameful behavior, are in free fall. It seems that fewer people say “thank you” or “please” or even hold doors open for others. At the same time, more people are using cell phones in restaurants, and swearing in public is common. There is less consideration for others. It’s all about “me.” What used to be unacceptable behavior, such as shouting and talking over one another on television or propagating falsehoods, has become commonplace, “normalized” as the standard of social decency erodes.
Losing civility in our daily life, we further lose touch with our capacity to feel. We become genuinely confused about the fabric of reality and social norms, destroying peace within ourselves and others. And before we know it, we’re participating in the creation of a world where there’s more paranoia and less security for the mind and heart.
This is what is happening in the world today. We are at a dangerous crossroads, because when we lose feeling, our exchanges with others lose value. As we gain speed, our relationships become more superficial. As we become more isolated and opinionated, our respect for others decreases. We can’t hear them anymore. When this happens, we lose both civility and intimacy. By this, I don’t mean romantic love, but kindness, the ability to be open and honest with another, to be vulnerable, to be heard.
Life is then defined by the feeling of emotional and social separation—“us” versus “them.” We don’t really want to interact with others, or we want to interact only with those who agree with us. Maintaining this separation in order to keep out others takes extreme vigilance. This causes stress. It creates fear. We are fighting the natural flow of life.
Great artists use painting, sculpting, or music as their medium for bringing imagination into the world. Likewise, by opening up a conversation with another person, our inspiration has a channel to express itself. It is an art because it transmits feeling. Art brings beauty and meaning into our lives. Beauty is a sense of totality, or wholeness.
It has been said that a dark age is characterized by mass amnesia, in which our consciousness thickens and we forget our art. Then, after a while, we even forget what has been lost. Because language is one of the most subtle and sophisticated aspects of humanity, we must practice the art of good conversation. Simply put, if we don’t use it, we will lose it, devolving into more primal states of being.
From a meditative point of view, the art of conversation is an engagement in mindfulness and, therefore, being present. Mindfulness is the act of noticing. It is not engaging in like or dislike; it is paying attention to being alive.
Excerpted from The Lost Art of Good Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life by Sakyong Mipham © 2017. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters