When was the last time you were at dinner with a friend or loved one, and your phone was on the table? Last night? The night before? Even if it’s face-down, that phone is disrupting your conversation, says Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. I spoke to Turkle about her new book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” — and about what texting, social media and ghosting are doing to our friendships and romantic relationships. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Bonos: Your book talks a lot about the effects cellphones have on our in-person conversations. What’s going on in those situations?
Turkle: One of the things we do is that we pick up our phone while we’re with our friends and our romantic partners, and we text in their presence. In a recent Pew report, 89 percent of adults said that in the last social encounter they were in, they used a phone to reach another person. And 82 percent said that it deteriorated the conversation.
A solo person relies … on that web of friendships and family and connections. If you’re using your phone while you’re with these people, you’re not necessarily maintaining those connections in the best possible way.
For example, I tell a story of a woman who’s with one of her best friends, and she’s talking about a breakup. The friend is trying to help her, and while they’re talking about the breakup, she starts to text other people about the breakup and get support from her social network available to her on the phone.
Bonos: When there’s a real live connection in front of her.
Turkle: For the friend who’s with her … the sentiment is: What does that make me? Do I not have any privileged position as the friend not on the phone? There are things that the friend not on the phone really can give us.
Bonos: I’m probably more likely to have a phone out or be looking at my phone if I’m with friends than if I’m on a date. The date might be this bastion of keeping your phone away.
Turkle: But as people become comfortable in relationships and start to feel that they’re not on a date … the phones come back out. In a way, it’s a marker of the transition [from a date] to a person in your life who’s integrated into the rest of your life.
There’s a line in my book that’s my favorite: “Technology makes us forget what we know about life.” We’ve decided that it’s okay to have a constant social media stream interrupt our conversation with our lovers, friends, family, children, parents because it’s become a social norm. [When phones are out] you talk about things where you don’t mind being interrupted … you keep it light.
Bonos: With romantic relationships, how does technology make us forget what we know about life?
Turkle: In the romance chapter of my book, I talk about this couple [Adam and Tessa] who have a lot of their relationship go on via text. Adam felt that he was a better self online because he could edit himself. And then she broke up with him. I went over a lot of their texts; he had missed so much.
Bonos: Like what?
Turkle: He was busy looking at how much she was texting him — not the content and not the signs of vulnerability, not the hesitation and the pauses. He was reassured by the volume. Somebody’s texting you 20 times a day, you feel you’re good. We can lose our perspective on what’s happening in a relationship if we don’t take the time to sit with each other and say: “What’s happening?”
For example, people talk about wanting to have their arguments by text or by messenger. … So that there can be a record, so that they can say, ‘This is exactly what I said. Don’t misunderstand me.'”
Bonos: In talking to these couples, did you find any who were balancing digital communication and in-person communication in an admirable way?
Turkle: The ones who balance it are the ones who —when they’re together, they’re together. People use technology in very creative, very meaningful ways. The problems came when … instead of showing respect for other people when they’re ending a relationship, they just stop. That came up so much.
Bonos: The “nothing” response, as you call it in the book, also known as “ghosting”?
Turkle: It made people crazy. In these romantic relationships, people have invested in each other, whether or not they’ve slept together; they’ve extended themselves emotionally to each other. And there is just nothing! People feel that’s okay because it’s just online. It’s not okay.
Bonos: And yet it’s so common, and I feel it’s becoming more common.
Turkle: We are forgetting that what we’re doing online, what we’re doing in texting — these are conversations. … It’s becoming more common because we’re becoming desensitized.
Bonos: Desensitized to what?
Turkle: Desensitized to how our behavior affects other people. There’s a 40 percent drop in all the markers for empathy among college students in the past 20 years, with most of the change in the past 10. That really points to devices being a big part of the story. It doesn’t happen by magic, it happens through something like this nothing response. You somehow convince yourself: Well, it’s only texting.
Bonos: So if it’s only texting, it’s not a conversation?
Turkle: Yes. Somehow, because it’s on a little bubble on a phone, we convince ourselves that it doesn’t matter. But people are hurt all the same.
Bonos: I’m wondering what role digital communication is playing in our memories of how our relationships go. Are we remembering the breakup e-mails and “I love you” texts more than things that were said out loud, in person, of which there is no digital record?
Turkle: I don’t want to say more, but I certainly have data on how important and how focused people are on the digital record. The digital record becomes, in some cases, the relationship. People show their friends and ask their opinions and have people vote on who was right and who was wrong. What did he mean? What did I mean? Did I say this wrong? If I had done this differently, would this have happened?
People become very involved in the idea that: If they had done it right, it would have worked out right.
Bonos: Even though they’re communicating in a medium where they have a better chance of doing it right?
Turkle: Yes. But now they have a transcript and they can go over it and see things that they would have done differently. What I’m concerned about is the way in which digital life fosters this fantasy about perfection, control … an intolerance for serendipity, an intolerance for solitude, an intolerance for quiet.
Bonos: What’s the answer to that? To be texting less and talking in person more?
Turkle: [We need to] be more tolerant of each other. Get it wrong. Give somebody a second chance. It doesn’t mean the relationship is going to work out, but don’t give people the sense that they say one thing wrong — woah, they’re gone. They’re like a Snapchat!
Nobody wants to feel that people just won’t respond to them or that they can be made to disappear. That’s a much worse feeling than someone respectfully saying to you, “This isn’t working out.”