Donald Morrison: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Conversation | Columnists

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I went to see a ballet at Jacob’s Pillow the other night. I arrived early, but still had to squeeze past a row of people to get to my seat. I mumbled a few apologies, then buried my nose in the program to avoid further discussion.

My father would never have done that.

He could talk to anyone about anything. He always struck up conversations with random strangers, to my teenage mortification.

Perhaps as a result, I began to see spontaneous discussions as tedious, time-consuming, potentially embarrassing, terminal. I found myself dreading face-to-face interactions, even phone calls. I’m better now, although talking to strangers is still a chore.

When I got home from the theater that night, I did some research on the internet. It turns out there’s a surprising amount of research on fear of conversation.

Sociologists at the University of Arizona, for example, have found that cell phones and social media can induce feelings of loneliness among heavy users — which today includes just about everyone. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that Americans are deeply reluctant to talk to strangers in person.

Why? Perhaps because we mistakenly believe that life is too short for idle palaver and more satisfying without it. Or, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre so aptly put it, that “hell is other people”.

Sartre was a jerk. Most research on human interaction seems to come to the same general conclusion: the more contact, the better. Brigham Young University psychologists reviewed 148 such studies and found that people who converse often with their peers were not only emotionally healthier than those who didn’t, but also had a risk of 50% lower mortality.

If you don’t think so, consider the consequences of the COVID pandemic on Americans’ emotional well-being. Mental Health America, a 123-year-old nonprofit group, reports that the number of Americans seeking help for emotional issues has increased fivefold in the last year alone. By far the most frequently cited cause was “loneliness or isolation”.

Meanwhile, our sad loneliness is compounded by the way we live. In the modern age, we work from home, shop online, and no longer join clubs, civic organizations, or bowling leagues — as Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam has foresightedly observed in his book 1995, “Bowling Alone”. (Perhaps Putnam should spend an evening in the resurgent Cove Bowling lanes of Great Barrington, if he can get into the parking lot.)

So why aren’t more people reaching out and touching someone? Sherry Turkle of MIT, who has written five books on social interaction, suggests that many of us fear saying the wrong thing, being thought foolish, hurting someone’s feelings. (Or, in these turbulent times, start a political row.)

That’s why, says Turkle, we retreat to the comfort of texts, tweets and emails, which allow us to edit our thoughts before hitting the “send” button. All of this security, however, comes at the expense of spontaneity, serendipity and, indeed, reason.

Even TikTok-tipsy teenagers know the difference between electronic contact and the real guy, and lately they’ve been starving for the latter. The MHA study found that the most severe deterioration in mental health during the pandemic occurred among 11- to 17-year-olds, millions of whom were deprived of face-to-face contact with friends and classmates. class.

What’s more, as the University of Chicago study found, most people vastly overestimate the danger of saying something inappropriate or stupid in a face-to-face conversation – and underestimate how people are grateful when we talk to them, no matter what we do. say.

The Chicago researchers got people to start conversations with strangers and then measured the results. Most of those who had to initiate the chat were unhappy with their performance, but the recipients were generally grateful for the contact. Both parties said they felt happier afterwards.

I didn’t know any of this when I was at the ballet. But I knew my father was a happy man – a prankster, storyteller, serial carpenter, and friend to strangers everywhere.

So at intermission I took a deep breath, turned to the middle-aged lady sitting next to me, and said, “So where are you from?” I felt like a creep.

Five minutes later, as the house lights dimmed and the curtain began to rise, we were immersed in a discussion of college loan forgiveness (his children), mid-century modern architecture (his home) and the American Revolution (his town, near Boston.).

I never got his name. Probably never see her again. But I came away thinking I’d knocked down a wall and found my dad’s secret to happiness on the other side. I can’t wait to try again.

So be warned: if you ever meet me, be prepared to chat. It may not be very interesting, but it should make us both feel better, happier, healthier emotionally. Just as my father had planned.

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