Can We Talk…?

Those of us of a certain age will remember Joan Rivers’ catchphrase, and know that what came afterward was a pithy observation regarding one of the little absurdities of life, the news of the day, or the celeb du jour.  I was never a huge fan of Joan (as an empath I tend to want to insulate myself from “loud” people), until I saw a documentary about her life that was made not long before she died.  Her strength, tenacity and adaptability; and her fierce drive to continue working until her last day (which she did) really impressed me.  But her lead-in to her funniest bits – “Can we talk..?” (after which the audience would automatically begin to titter, anticipating what would come next) made a mundane, routine question something that brought smiles and laughter.

Joan Rivers once said in an interview that she never “meant” to have a catchphrase, but she wanted to be truly honest with the audience, and talk about things that most people sweep under the rug.  It was her way of signaling that she was going to say something that was perhaps socially unacceptable… but the truth (at least as she saw it!).  Interesting that now, a few years after her death, many celebrities (including news outlets and politicians) use dishonesty, rather than honesty, as their unofficial catchphrase.

Astonishingly, we now live in an era in which the truth has become a matter of opinion.  Facts which used to be incontrovertible are now up for discussion (or, more often, argument).  The truth has become whatever others of your political persuasion tell you it is, or what you can find on the internet that coincides with your own opinion.  Part of the problem, I think, is ego (“everyone thinks as I do”), part fear or denial (“I don’t want to believe what scares me, especially if there’s nothing I can do about it”), part stubbornness (“I believe this, and I can’t be wrong – the conflicting information must be wrong”).  But I think that the real issue is something deeper – we just don’t talk anymore.

Over the past few months, I have recorded podcasts discussing Conflict and Communication with my friend Donita Wheeler of Mama Bear Cancer Coach (you may listen to them on iHeart Radio here).  The first podcast in our series was about communication issues in general, the second on how to listen to understand, the third (which will be available this month) on the role of brain chemistry in communication and the fourth (coming soon!) on the emotional and psychological reasons why we argue – even when we know on some level that we’re wrong.  According to Donita, a lot of her regular listeners have been closely following the series, interested in the practical information and tips for effective communication I related in the podcasts, from my years of experience as a mediator (and a communicant!).  I think that some people are curious about learning to communicate better face to face because it’s so rare these days.  It’s like learning a new language!

Social media has taken the place of social interaction.  Texts and memes have taken the place of real conversation.  Seriously, when was the last time you picked up the phone and called someone just to talk?  Remember when you used to get a busy signal because people were actually on their phones talking with someone?  We would talk for hours with our friends (there were times when I was in danger of being disowned by my parents for calling friends who went to school with me but lived in another town, because we had to pay by the minute!  Yikes – the phone bills….), and often get together just to “shoot the breeze.”  Now we look at the caller ID on our phones and more often than not let it go to voicemail, even when it’s someone we know and like, because we’re in the middle of something, or just don’t feel like talking just then.  We text rather than having a real conversation (I can’t remember the last time my husband and I talked on the phone).  We would rather read what others are doing than ask them ourselves.  We type “LOL” with a perfectly straight face.  We don’t get the chance to laugh together.  And even when we do get together now, we have to have a goal – a hike, a concert, a movie, etc.  We don’t just sit on the porch or couch and chat over a cup or glass of our favorite beverage that much anymore.  What a loss.

Yes, times change, society changes, cultures and social mores change and with them interactions change.  But here’s the problem with our only interactions being over the internet – it’s superficial.  It’s isolating.  It can be unkind.  It’s sometimes (maybe even often) disingenuous or even dishonest.  We can post “filtered” or altered photos that make our lives look rosy and grand when we’re really just sitting hunched in front of our screens in our sweats waiting for the clock to tick off the seconds to our next meal, or binge-worthy program, or bedtime (where we have to take something to fall asleep, because our brains have been hyper-stimulated by electronics).  The isolation breeds depression, and then we post memes about thinking positive when times are hard, and reaching out to friends to help (though we don’t really do it – we just post a photo that says something to the effect of: “I’m here for you, and I know you’re here for me.”  But there’s no one knocking at the door).

It’s also equally easy to have an argument on the internet, especially on social media.  Anonymity makes it easy to spew hatred and vitriol at perfect strangers just because they disagree with us.  Have you ever read the comments made to political posts, or after an online news article?  People have ruined the lives and livelihoods of people they have never met because of what they perceive about them from a comment they made to someone else’s post.  Cyberbullying has become a sometimes fatal epidemic among teens, and there are numerous and growing cases among adults.  I’ve had people insult me using unthinkable language (once for commenting in agreement with something said by our Congressional Representative.  The response was immediate and vicious), and when I choose to disengage from the conversation, that becomes a reason to ridicule me as well.  It causes what we attorneys call a “chilling effect” – the reasonable people bow out of the conversations, leaving the more radical fringes to fight amongst themselves, and giving the illusion that everyone who cares about the issue one way or the other is a raving lunatic.  There are some (you can sometimes tell by the little symbol next to their online names) who seem to make this their job – they take pride in tearing other people down, trying to make themselves look like an expert, or a badass, or just because they can.  In a directly interactive society they would be shamed or shunned in public discourse for such derelict and anti-social behavior.  Now they’re encouraged and idolized and retweeted, allowed to go viral and often featured in the mainstream media (or even elected to public office).  All for being what we used to call jerks.  Now they’re heroes to those who have been wanting to spew their own poison.  Much easier to click “like” to an extreme point of view than to speak out.  This desire for 15 pixels of fame may even sow the seeds of mass murder.  Why live in obscurity when it has become so easy to live in infamy?

As a mediator, I’m often struck by people’s lack of communication skills in the digital age.  In the second part of our podcast discussion, on effective listening, I imparted tips that used to be common knowledge – make eye contact, use non-verbal cues, ask questions, reflect back what you’ve heard, etc. – which have become lost to us in a time in which we rarely interact face to face.  Some of the feedback I received made it clear that this was new information to a lot of (especially younger) folks.  We have forgotten how to have a simple conversation.

Don’t get me wrong – I say “we” for a reason – I have just as hard a time picking up that phone as anyone else (in fact, one of my best friends and I actually had a phone conversation that included how rare the occasion was that one of us picked up the phone for more than a text!).  When I send out my newsletter, there’s a disclaimer asking folks who want a reading to please email me rather than calling or texting.  This is because I work in my studio most days, and have no service out there, I don’t pick up the call if I don’t recognize the number (due to the inordinate number of telemarketing and scam calls I get because my number is on the internet) and my answering app (yes, there’s an app for that) doesn’t always record properly or at all, and often the message is lost to the ethersphere or it’s there and I can’t retrieve it.  But I worry that others may think I’m just trying to avoid talking with them directly.  And I sometimes wonder if they’re right!

I’m hoping that, since so much about life is cyclical, this period of time will resolve itself in favor of increased in-person communication filled with civility, kindness, honesty and mutual respect.  “Civilization” depends on it.  In the meantime… can we talk…?



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