We Need to Talk
December 16th | 2015
by James Diers

The social downside of technology has (rightly) become one of the most persistent topics in our cultural dialogue.

Author and psychologist Sherry Turkle’s recent book Reclaiming Conversation gave the subject a major media bump this fall, with a central thesis that rings familiar to most anyone with a smartphone:

As a society, we simply don’t talk to each other enough, self-isolated by an endless stream of texts, IMs, emails and digital ephemera. What Turkle calls a “flight from conversation” is adversely affecting everything from our marriages to our schools to our political process. The way to set things right is simple: step back, log out and give face-to-face communication a more prominent role in our lives.

While it’s easy to fixate on the solo time we spend staring at a device as a leading cause of these dystopian alarm bells, we also need to come clean about the ways in which shared screen time can get in the way of deeper connections and better communication.

Some strategists here at Zeus Jones recently sparked a discussion around the question of when a simple, direct conversation with a client can be a much better means of sharing an idea than a high-sheen Keynote presentation. Likewise, when faced with an inconvenient truth or a lack of consensus, isn’t it nobler to hash it out in person rather than revert to the feigned gentility of an email thread? And God forbid you’re in a meeting right now, half paying attention to somebody else while you read this.

When pixels and platforms and digital infrastructure are core to what you do, technology sometimes gets a pass. But no matter the task, we all do better when we keep spontaneous, two-way, spoken interaction at the heart of every day’s work. Here are a few leading reasons why conversation matters at Zeus Jones:

Conversation breeds risk and empathy.

Both can be uncomfortable (in a good way), and both are fairly essential to the best kind of innovation. Indeed, anyone invested in trying to make technology work harder for humans — powered by a human sense of purpose — should always acknowledge the stakes of real human interaction.

Screens lie.

So do people, of course. But filtering for noise and misinformation is a more productive practice when you’re dealing in the common currency of talking, listening and human eye contact. A shrewdly calculated story presented on a gorgeous flat-screen LED has its place, but it also has a way of lulling reasonable doubts and worthy objections into submission.

Talking reveals potential.

It’s science. “[Spoken language is] the communication form that most clearly reveals not only what people are thinking but also their thinking ability. … Without even thinking about it, you naturally flood your listener with cues to your thinking through subtle modulations in tone, pace, volume, and pitch.”

Talking reveals bias.

A lot of the flaws in our everyday decision-making get obscured by the fragmented nature of digital communication. When we engage in fluid dialogue with other people, our cognitive biases — and theirs — can be more easily recognized and overcome.

Emotions > emoji.

Passion, pathos and urgency come across more clearly and efficiently in real-time conversation than they ever do by digital proxy. Too often, the act of presuming or short-handing other people’s feelings actually drains their potency. If emotions are like muscles, dialogue is the best way to flex them.

Above all, it pays to recognize that conversation is an act of creation. To paraphrase communication scholar Kim Erwin, it’s a fundamentally open and collaborative platform in which people can move ideas forward through shared experience, rather than simply trading prefab narratives. And because Zeus Jones was founded on a core belief that action speaks louder than words, it’s our job to embrace conversation itself as a powerful, meaningful action … not just a bunch of words.