Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘conversation’

Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone [...].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

Read Full Post »

When I was ‘researching’ the parenting booklet, one of the topics that came up again and again in the responses was the importance of families sitting down to eat together regularly.

Since then I found this article by Richard Corrigan, a London chef, who explains why he is supporting a research project that is looking into the effects of mealtimes on family life and social cohesion.

I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

Well, the usefulness of family meals is no fantasy. You would expect me, as a life-long restaurateur, to argue in favour of the positive effects of people breaking bread together. I watch people do it everyday. It is one of the reasons I love my work.

But I am equally passionate about the importance of meals in the home. My wife, Maria, and our three children – Richard, Jessica and Robert – try to sit down and eat together as often as we can. This has always felt like common sense. It worked for me as a boy growing up north of Dublin and, although there is less greenery around us at our home in north London, it works for me as a father.

It is one of the reasons I agreed to become the patron of a British think tank which tries to put some hard science behind the soft glow of a good home. The Home Renaissance Foundation was founded by my friend Sir Bryan Sanderson, a former managing director of BP and chairman of BUPA. He wanted to promote an understanding and an appreciation of what our homes can do when they work well. Research by the Home Renaissance Foundation shows us that family meals should not be dismissed as so much 1950s retro.

According to economics professor Dr Sophia Aguirre, who wrote a paper for the Foundation about this, family dinners generate “human capital”. Kids who sit down regularly with parents and siblings do better at exams than those who don’t. Rates of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders are also lower. Her graphs show that what really matters is the quality of the time together. As soon as a television is switched on during a family meal, a lot of the good socialising stops.

Now, you could argue that, if kids have parents who are up to organising a family meal at the dining table, those children already have a headstart.

For one thing, many of the homes we build nowadays have no room for a dining table. And if it’s not the building, it’s the people. In chaotic families, the routine that regular meal times need just isn’t there.

But Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.

Here is the introduction to the ‘Meals and Food’ chapter of the parenting booklet:

Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on, can bring so many blessings to family life. It gives your children time with you, and time with each other. It allows you to listen, to talk, and to share things. It gives rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week – which is so important for the children. It puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life.

Eating together gives space for personalities to grow, for language to develop, for ideas to emerge. It gives a simple way of praying together, if you say grace before meals, and pray in thanksgiving after them. And you make sure that the children are eating well!

This is hard for many people. There are activities after school. Perhaps you have shift-work. The children want to go out or do homework or watch TV. Or the simple fact is that you are not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together. But the long-term benefits are absolutely huge. Regular meals together – or as regular as is possible for you – are one of the keys to good family life.

And here is one of the quotes about how meals depend on tables!

Just having a table is important! Some of the families in our parish didn’t have a kitchen or dining table to sit round for meals at home. We spoke about this in the Holy Communion classes, and helped one or two to get a table. It doesn’t have to be expensive. They came back and said what a difference it made – talking, listening, and sometimes arguing, and then making up; just being together in a way that doesn’t happen if you don’t make time.

Read Full Post »

A miracle happened on the Piccadilly line on Tuesday evening. They broke the rules. The flew in the face of convention. They boldly went where no man or woman had gone before. They trampled on the strongest known London Underground taboo.

Three strangers had a conversation together.

Notice how carefully I choose my words.

(1) Three: Not one person having a conversation with himself. This happens quite often – through alcohol, insanity, loneliness, frustration, whatever. Not two people getting caught up in conversation. This happens now and then. Maybe I experience this a bit more often because I’m a priest in a clerical collar, which gives an opening. But in this case three individual human beings, sitting on the tube, apparently normal people.

(2) Strangers: All three were strangers to each other. So this isn’t two friends plus another stranger; or three old friends who bump into each other; it’s three people who have never met before. Unless they were plants/actors? Maybe I was on Candid Camera?

(3) Had a conversation together: Not just ‘grunted’ (‘Oh for goodness sake’; ‘what are they playing at’) or ‘exchanged information’ (‘What’s the next station?’; ‘Green Park’) or ‘shared curses’ (no descriptions needed).

Someone threw in the opening gambit, the others dipped their toes in, they felt their way forward hesitantly, and then they went for it and actually talked to each other – for about ten minutes. As normal people would. About where they had been, where they were going, what they were doing. It was remarkable.

At first, being British, what did I feel? Acute embarrassment. A discomfort so deep it was beyond words or reason. I thought, ‘Oh no – they can’t do that! Don’t they know? Where is this going? How can this last?’ As if some natural order had been disturbed; a sense of foreboding. I looked away; I concentrated even more intently on what I was reading.

Then, after about two minutes, when I realised it wasn’t just a dream, I felt an almost dizzy sense of liberation, a gratitude; even a kind of awe in the face of the boundless possibilities that open up to humankind when people realise they can be normal and that they don’t have to play the games. More than an experience of the Emperor’s New Clothes; as if I had secretly believed that the train would crash and even darker things happen if we didn’t follow the rules. (Where did these rules come from? Were they given as an injection when we were seven days old? Something in the water?)

Ten minutes of conversation between three strangers. I had a small part in it, but I wasn’t one of the three main protagonists. It began, inevitably, with an enquiry about where we were; and when the second person couldn’t answer, I threw in ‘Boston Manor’ – and then sank back into my reading.

But now comes the truth. It’s all as I have said, and it was indeed miraculous. It’s certainly the first time in my 45 years that I have witnessed this. But it was the Piccadilly Line; and yes, we were travelling from west to east – in other words, we were coming from the direction of Heathrow.

So perhaps, for the social anthropologists who have been devouring this post, it wasn’t technically part of the Underground system – they will bring up some formal exemption; perhaps, because it’s almost a spur from Heathrow, it counts – in the sociology of urban space – not as a tube line but as an airport lounge; as if the category of ‘train’ or ‘tube’ was somehow suspended for the thirty minutes from Terminals 1,2 and 3 to Earls Court.

In an airport lounge, even in Britain, you are allowed to talk to strangers, even to two or three at the same time; as long as you amble in nonchalantly, and back off at the merest hint of disinterest or disdain. And yes, I admit it, the conversation was about where they had been (on their travels) and where they were going. Or in this case, where they had not been (because someone had missed their plane – it’s a long story…And maybe that’s why it was allowed to develop, because it activated the sub-rule that you can break the rule and talk about recent or impending public disasters; only this wasn’t public but private, but it was felt so intensely that it took on a public dimension).

So maybe it wasn’t a miracle.

But they did talk. And they were complete strangers. And it was the tube!

And I was there to witness it! Something to tell my great nieces and nephews in years to come.

Read Full Post »

I promise this will be my last Royal Wedding reflection. But here’s the question: Is it ethically acceptable to lipread when two people are having a private conversation? Of course lipreading, in itself, is not wrong – any more than reading a text or listening to someone’s voice. But for the Royal Wedding last weekend, every newspaper and TV station seemed to employ a professional lipreader to ‘listen in’ to the private conversations of the protagonists; but no-one seemed to question the ethics of this.

If someone has a private conversation, even in a public place, do they still have a right to privacy? What’s the difference between lipreading a private conversation and listening in on a phone call? Why, in other words, are we outraged when a national newspaper admits that it has been tapping the phones of famous people, but not when the world’s media decides to ‘listen in’ on these intimate private conversations?

Is it because they take place on the public stage, so the rules of privacy don’t apply? Is it because these people know about the possibility of being ‘heard’, so they are implicitly recognising that their actions are available for public consumption? Is it because the distinction between public and private does not exist anymore? Is it because ordinary life has become a Big Brother studio, and we all accept as part of the ‘social contract’ that every word we speak might be picked up by a hidden microphone?

Don’t worry – I’m not pretending to be outraged myself. I’m just curious about where the ethical line is: What’s public? What’s private? And why is it that we are quite happy for some private truths to be exposed to public scrutiny but not others?

Holly Watt reports on some of the great lines (and here I am, happy to repeat them…):

“You look beautiful,” he told Kate Middleton, as she walked towards him in her Alexander McQueen dress.

“Yes, it looks fantastic, it’s beautiful,” he added, according to Ruth Press, who has been deaf since birth and works as a forensic lipreader.

Prince William also cracked a joke to his father-in-law at the altar before the royal wedding ceremony, saying: “We’re supposed to have just a small family affair”.

The joke by William to Michael Middleton in Westminster Abbey was spotted by Tina Lannin, lipreader for O’Malley Communications.

She also spotted Prince Harry nervously comment ”Right, she is here now”, as Miss Middleton arrived at the abbey.

And Charlie Swinbourne writes about his experience as a lip-reader, and the fallibility of the process:

Reading lip patterns is vital in helping deaf people fill in the words they can’t hear. I’m partially deaf, and I’ve been lipreading ever since I learned to speak. As well as being a vital part of communication, it’s also fun. I’ve lipread couples bickering in restaurants, footballers telling referees exactly what they think of them, and on Friday, the royal wedding.

During a national event at which the protagonists were visible but crucially not audible, hundreds of deaf people, including my partner and I, added our translations to Twitter in real time. We soon found out that several deaf friends of ours had thought ahead and were actually getting paid for it; working for national news outlets, one working for a series of tabloids and another, for a 24-hour news channel and a magazine.

What was funny was just how often the translations differed from each other. For instance, did William tell Kate at the altar “You look – er, you are beautiful“, or did he say: “You look lovely?”Or, as we thought, did he say: “You look stunning, by the way. Very beautiful.” Then there was the Telegraph, which initially reported William as saying: “You look stunning babe!’

The differences in translation proved that lipreading, far from being some kind of super-power deaf people have (and a great gimmick in movies featuring deaf characters), depends heavily – it’s said 70%-90% – on guesswork. I recently visited a lipreading class to test out my skills, and found that even with a lifetime’s worth of experience, there were still words I struggled to make out.

Read Full Post »

What’s wrong with a bit of harmless gossip? So what if I use the odd half-truth to spice up a bit of conversation? Or pass on an unsubstantiated rumour? Isn’t it important that I know what’s going on, or what might be going on, or what could in theory in some alternative universe be going on? And that you know it too?

Laura Barton ponders these issues after seeing Lillian Helman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, that deals with the fall-out from a malicious accusation made against two teachers in a girls’ boarding school in New England.

‘Gossip,” the grande dame of rumourmongers, Liz Smith, once noted, “is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”

Few of us are immune to the lure of celebrity gossip. Like many women I know, I find even a casual visit to the Daily Mail website is akin to falling down a rabbit-hole: hours lost in the trials and tribulations of the Kardashian sisters, or the wardrobe choices of Kelly Brook, or in riveting accounts of Britney Spears paying an afternoon visit to Starbucks. And my conclusion is that the mud does stick: I can tell you with some accuracy, for example, the romantic history of Shia LaBoeuf, or the fitness regime of weather-girl Claire Nasir, and I have a working knowledge of the US television series Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, without ever once having seen it.

Gossip has always been deemed a largely female preserve, and there have been numerous studies of women’s relationships with hearsay and tattle, of the way it builds our social networks, cements our relationships, of the way we revel in its endless narrative – the weight gained, lost and gained once again; the bikini shots; the red-carpet outfits; the marriages; the births; the infidelities – in much the same way that many men (and, yes, women too) relish the rise and fall of a football team and its players.

But these days gossip seems to have outdone itself: its magazines (chiefly aimed at a female audience) flourish in a flagging market, while websites such as TMZ broadcast endless videos of Lindsey Lohan buying shoes or Justin Bieber inspecting his nails, and with this increased exposure we have come to believe these are things we have a right to know…

And this is what I fear we are in danger of forgetting: that gossip is harmful. And it is harmful not just to those who are gossiped about; it is harmful, too, to those of us who relentlessly consume it.

Nearly 50 years ago, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in which she spoke of the widespread unhappiness and lack of fulfilment of women in the 50s and 60s. “The problem that has no name” was what she called it, and she defined it as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities”. It was, she said, “taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease”.

Times are different now. Women have greater access to education, to careers, to intellectual fulfilment than ever before. And yet now we choose to dumb ourselves down, to subdue our own minds by sedating ourselves with online visits to the Daily Mail and buying gossip weeklies at the newsstand. “The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive,” Friedan wrote in 1963, and there are times when I fear we are doing no better – burying ourselves alive in a mire of half-true tales about Sienna Miller.

We need to nourish our minds, we need to recognise that if we continue to feed ourselves with this bilge, this drivel, then we are imprisoning ourselves. Isn’t it time we became less about the red satin dress and more about the news?

Is it really predominantly a ‘women’s issue’? And if so – why?

Read Full Post »

It’s hard talking to strangers. I don’t mean when a friend introduces you to one of their friends; or when someone rings the door selling bargain tea-towels; or when you swap health stories in a hospital ward. These are all situations where the context allows you to make conversation, even if it is only for a short time. I mean walking up to someone in the street on a Saturday afternoon because you hope to engage them in a discussion about the meaning of life.

Last weekend I was involved in the Spirit in the City festival. This is a project run by the Catholic parishes in central London – an attempt to make their presence better known to the locals, and to show to the hundreds of thousands of people visiting the West End that there is more to this area than restaurants and night clubs.

On Friday evening I joined a Eucharistic procession from Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, to the French Church in Leicester Place. Three or four hundred people, with a marching band, a few banners, and piles of leaflets and prayer cards to hand out, walking with the Body of the Lord through Covent Garden and Leicester Square. It was a glorious summer evening, and the pavements were thronged with people spilling out of the pubs and bars, either finishing the working day or starting the evening.

An image from the procession in 2007

On Saturday the organisers somehow got permission from the local council to take over Leicester Square itself. A music stage, a prayer tent with continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a tent for confessions, another for discussion. And hoards of young volunteers in turquoise T-shirts handing out prayer cards and trying to engage people in discussion.

I spent a couple of hours on the main pavement between the street cartoonists and the Empire Cinema. Here are the stats (very approximate): I tried to offer a card to everyone who passed. I used a line like, ‘Did you get one of these?’ or ‘Can I give you a card?’ I’d say that about 1 in 6 actually accepted one. When someone did, I tried to start a conversation in a very unthreatening way, for example, ‘There’s a festival on in the square today…’ or ‘We are from the local Catholic churches…’ Of those who took a card, about 1 in 6 stopped to listen. And of these, about half were interested enough to have a conversation. So that means, very roughly, that I had a proper talk with about 1 in 72 people. The ratio was much higher than I expected!

I’m wearing the clerical collar, so they know I’m a Christian. And I found the best line to get a decent conversation going was, ‘Are you religious yourself?’ It allowed people to say ‘No’, and without me asking they nearly always told me why they weren’t. Or to say ‘Yes’ or ‘Sort of…’ and to say what it meant to them.

I had some amazing conversations. I won’t post about them – I feel it’s crossing a line to blog about personal conversations as a priest, even if they are anonymous. But it showed me how open many people are to talking about faith and religion; and how it’s possible to do that without any edge or antagonism – even with strangers. I think the sun helped too.

What’s the point of it all? Ah…the million dollar question. Most people don’t want to talk to strangers about anything, let alone religion. But many do – a surprising number. Genuine conversations. I think that is a good thing in itself, being able to talk and share and explore things. And it’s a sign to others that ordinary Christians like myself (I was one of many) care about their faith and about others enough to want to meet people and talk – it’s a witness. Then, perhaps, these kinds of conversations open something up in the hearts and minds of those who have them, something that might not have come to the surface without this random encounter. Both for the one drawn into the conversation, and for the one who starts it. And they get the free prayer card!

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,172 other followers

%d bloggers like this: