The changing art of conversations

We speak to express ourselves. When we are talking to somebody, there is a constant dance of thoughts. A thought here, an idea there and a design somewhere else and presto we have a conversation! But, conversations are an endangered species in today’s digital times. WhatsApp has changed the way we communicate. Today, communication is driven by short forms and emojis. Gone are the days of long, leisurely chats over the phone. Now, everything happens virtually and quickly.

One may wonder what purpose did conversations serve in any case. Surely there could be a better use of time and energy. We are after all more productive today, aren’t we? Conversations are a bit like wild animals in a sanctuary. You get a certain high when you spot them and there’s a certain adrenaline rush when you are close enough to photograph them. A world without wild animals is unimaginable even though on the face of it, there is no real utility to them. However, in reality, they serve to balance the ecosystem just as conversations provide stability in the world of ideas.

People are fascinating and there is no better way to know them than to have detailed conversations. I have had the opportunity of interacting in depth with people across India. It helps of course that they were given incentives for their participation. A conversation is nothing but a see-saw. Ideas flow from one side to the other and control of the conversation flows from one participant to another. It seems ironic that so much dynamism can be packed into the simple activity of talking among people.

One may argue that conversations have not disappeared; they have simply taken on a new form. There are people who spend hours exchanging messages on WhatsApp. Don’t these qualify as conversations? Not in my book. Taking breaks between messages, hiding behind a screen and sending emojis instead of words is definitely communication but not conversation. In conversations, people are open books. Even if these take place over the phone through voice calls, one’s intonation and tonality says a great deal about what one is thinking. Of course, there is no substitute for face to face conversations where facial expressions and body language can also be observed.

It would be an interesting exercise for people to think back to when they had their last real conversation. And, by ‘real conversation’ I don’t mean transactional exchanges like “what’s been made for dinner” or “how are you doing”. Given the popularity of messaging services like WhatsApp it seems that ‘real conversations’ don’t have a lot going for them. After all, the world seems to be functioning perfectly well without them. There is more to this than meets the eye. People have withdrawn into their cocoons and the world has become a lonelier place.

Conversations are the oxygen which allows people and ideas to flower. They generate bursts of ideas and lead to immense self-expression. A long conversation can lead to a person almost feeling naked because of the openness with which his or her expression has taken place. Yet, we don’t seem to be missing them. The answer is simple: convenience. Without conversations, life is so much simpler. There is no need to confide in your friends or have an honest exchange with your partner. Just send a WhatsApp with an emoji and job done.

So, for how long will convenience trump ideas? The matter lies in our hands. You can only appreciate conversations when you participate in them. It’s a bit like simply dipping your feet and allowing the waves to lap your toes versus venturing deeper into the sea and riding waves. There is a different high associated with deeper exploration of emotions and ideas. Not only do you get to know the other person better, you also obtain a better understanding of yourself. Currently, most of us are operating at a surface level. There is only so much that can be typed into a message. We need to converse, engage and ideate.

It is disturbing how easily we moved from being conversation enthusiasts to messaging junkies. One often forgets that it has only been about 12 years since WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter took over our imaginations. These messaging services have resulted in a plethora of ideas being circulated with minimum filtration and analysis. As a result, we now stand at the cusp of a digital revolution which can boomerang on us. All our data is an analyzed and advertisements are planted accordingly. This is quickly happening even as conversations die a quiet death.

Today, we face a situation where we are bombarded with ideas and information. This is after all the digital age where existence revolves around the smart phone. We are hyper connected yet lonelier than ever before. Gone are the days of long leisurely talking sessions where attention would glide over topics as diverse as the weather to sports to professional updates. These conversations helped to connect us at a deeper level. These used to take place before we began to communicate in byte sized quantities.

Somehow, we don’t seem to be missing conversations. In a world where cars zip and zoom through traffic lanes, who has the time to board a leisurely double-decker bus? The bus provides a great view of the world but is only for those who have the luxury of time. And, time is everything. At the end of the day, conversations are great in theory but too intensive in practice. The qualitative researcher in me adores them. But, in reality one makes do with short bursts of communication and emojis. There is the rare conversation which takes place with a friend and these are precious.

WhatsApp messages and emojis have packed conversations into easy to consume bytes. The sheer variety of emojis means that the entire spectrum of emotions can be expressed very easily. So, conversations have moved from being an audio activity to a typing phenomenon. Earlier in this piece, I argued that WhatsApp messages and emojis were communication and not conversation. They don’t provide the kind of transparency and openness that conversations traditionally provided. However, they do allow people to respond instinctively and quickly. These instinctive responses have opened up new lines of communication. We have moved from talking in depth about issues to packing ideas into a few messages.

Conversations as they earlier existed may be an endangered species but they are not extinct yet. The power of ideas is eternal and humans will always find new and innovative ways to communicate. It is true that with WhatsApp and emojis, you don’t really know how the other person is reacting. However, what you do get is 21 stcentury self-expression. It is easy to reminisce about the times gone by and write obituaries for conversations. However, what we have before us is a communications revolution. It is best to try to swim in this whirlpool of ideas than to be nostalgic and stand by the wayside. The world of communication has changed forever. It is time to swim with the tide.

Originally published at http://ridingvaves.wordpress.com on December 7, 2020.

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Harsh Maskara

Runner, Tennis enthusiast, idea hunter, people analyst, qualitative researcher, wordsmith, traveler, dreamer, listener, connecting dots, theater goer