Friday, May 25, 2012

E-Mail and Conversations

Sherry Turkle's opinion piece, "The Flight From Conversation," was published more than a month ago in The New York Times. Her main point is that nothing substitutes for face-to-face conversation. Alongside Twitter and Facebook, she mentions e-mail as a form of communication that pales in comparison to face-to-face conversation. She says that when we communicate using technology, we do so in a faster, less nuanced manner than when we converse in person. In face-to-face conversations, she says, we are more attentive to other people's viewpoints.

I've thought about her piece a lot since reading it last month. Today, it occurred to me that my best friendship has been sustained by e-mail. My best friend and I graduated from college in 1994. Since then, we have almost always lived 500 miles apart. We get together in person a few times a year. Between visits, we rely on e-mail to stay in touch. Neither of us like to use the phone. Never have. But we both like e-mail and have consistently used it in the course of our friendship. Sometimes the messages consist of frivolous one-liners and not-so-important updates. Other times they have included serious exchanges filled with deep meaning. There are things that are hard for me to say to anyone's face, for fear of being judged for what I have to say or how I say it. E-mail has allowed me to say what I want to say in a careful and measured way. Turkle sees this as a problem. Human relationships are messy and we use technology to clean them up, she says. To that I would say without e-mail, there are things I never would have said to anyone in any way. In college and graduate school I hid a lot of my thoughts in diaries. I've opened up since then, but not totally. There are lots of thoughts I choose not to share. E-mail allows me to carefully share some of those sensitive thoughts. I don't see this as being shortchanged. Nor do I want to pick up the phone every time I want to share a book recommendation with my friend or ask him for a movie recommendation. Occasionally he sends me a hilarious account of something that happened to him. Then I can read it 2-3 times because it's such a great story and I get to enjoy it more than once.

Aside from describing the centrality of e-mail in an important friendship, I want to briefly say something about conversational skills. Being a college professor, most of my daily conversations are with students. Unlike me, they grew up with cell phones. For many of them, Facebook is a vital part of their lives. And yes, they are experts at texting. I also find they possess good conversational skills. I regularly speak with students face-to-face. I am generally impressed by how they carry on conversations. They send me e-mails too, but it's not a flight from conversation. Turkle is right in saying that human relationships are rich. I think that all of the ways we communicate make our relationships rich. We talk, we text. We text while we talk. There are so many ways to enjoy each other. I like a good conversation as much as anyone. But in my life I've found that good conversations are hard to find. So I'm happy to connect with people in any way that I can.

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