View from the Street: Killing the art of conversation - never mind the quality, feel the bandwidth

David Gaffney

View from the Street: Killing the art of conversation - never mind the quality, feel the bandwidth

“The art of clapping is dead, right? You can’t clap when you have a cell phone in your hand.”

So said Tiger Woods at the weekend, reflecting on his first PGA Tour win in five years. The golfer had been asked if he could remember a level of commotion similar to the rapturous reception he received from fans crammed round the 18th green in Atlanta on Sunday evening.

Casting his mind back to the 1997 Western Open, Woods ventured that it would have come close in terms of decibels, but quickly qualified his response by noting at least one significant difference: the nature of the noise had changed in the intervening decades, principally because it’s hard to applaud when you’re holding a phone in one hand.

“So people yell… and they’re going to be hoarse,” he concluded.

Now, I’m not convinced there’s that much artistry involved in applause, and Woods’ observation that mobile phones have transformed the way we all communicate and behave – for better or worse – is hardly revelatory.

For one thing, I’m resigned these days to watching bands perform through the inevitable cluster of mobile phones held above the heads of almost everyone in front of me at gigs.

But the main reason Woods’ words resonated was that just days before I’d been ruminating on the way in which the mobile phone is butchering another art, and an altogether more delicate and refined one than clapping: the art of conversation.

At an awards dinner recently, I sat next to someone whose phone barely left their hands all night. For at least half the time we were in each other’s company, my neighbour chose to tap away at the device in question, rather than engage with the other flesh-and-blood humans who had congregated to share a meal together.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, it has occurred to me that this might say more about my inability to engage somebody in stimulating conversation than anything else. And as much as I’m my own second-harshest critic – with my wife unassailable in first place on that chart – I’m not sure that even the finest raconteur would have stood a chance against the various Whatsapp groups and social media posts I was vying for attention with that night.

To be fair to my would-be acquaintance, the celebrity hosts of the dinner didn’t exactly help matters, imploring people from the stage throughout the evening to share photos and comments on social media using the special hashtag dreamed up for the occasion. 

And I think that’s the bit that really irks me. It has apparently become the accepted norm when large groups of people convene for conferences, dinners, seminars and the like, that we are actively encouraged to ignore those we’re sitting with and spend time instead with the bots and bampots online, waving at the Twittersphere and hoping desperately that someone notices we’re at #TheBestEventHappeningAnywhereRightNow2018.

We’ve become obsessed with cyber interactivity, with accessing the broadest conversation imaginable, even when real human interaction and the potential for a rewarding one-on-one chinwag exists right there in the room we are in. We appear to place more value now on the scale or reach of a conversation than the quality of it.

Real conversations require greater effort, particularly with someone you’ve never met and with whom you may not even have much in common. You often have to work at it, to advance beyond the small talk, to ask questions that demonstrate your interest, to prod gently to elicit more information. You may also reveal something personal about yourself, learn a new piece of knowledge, share an experience and establish common ground.

Conversation can be an exquisite thing, with rich rewards, but it requires at least two parties to show some endeavour and willing. You’re unlikely to find yourself lost in a magical confab with a newfound kindred spirit if you’re too busy composing your next witty Facebook post.

I read a lot of justified misgivings about the often appalling nature of discourse on social media channels. That would seem to suggest there is a greater need than ever for traditional face-to-face dialogue, a format that naturally lends itself to a more civil and polite exchange than typically happens online, where nastiness and feigned outrage thrive.

Another moderately successful golfer, Rory McIlroy, underscored the value of real human relationships as he looked ahead to this weekend’s Ryder Cup in France.

“The best experiences in my career have been at the Ryder Cup. I’m proudest of my individual achievements…but when I look back…the best times I’ve had have been at Ryder Cups and that’s because you share moments with other people,” he said.

Shared moments with other people. They are possible to some extent on a smartphone, of course, but there’s a much more obvious and old-fashioned way to achieve them, and there aren’t many better places for that than the dinner table.

David Gaffney is a partner at Charlotte Street Partners.