Reclaiming Conversation: that is my mission after receiving inspiration from Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of the New York Times bestselling Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Her book, in brief, explores “how our dependence on technology has led to a flight from personal conversation, and how it is incumbent upon us to reclaim conversation in our lives to reclaim our humanity.”
Think this book doesn’t apply to you? That’s what I thought. After all, I do hold conversations, in-person conversations, and on a regular basis. But shortly after listening to Professor Turkle speak about her book in Silicon Valley recently, I hopped onto a ride share for my commute back into San Francisco. Since it was rush hour and likely would be a long drive, I deemed it the perfect time to get some work done, virtually, and pulled out my cell phone.
It was during this time that Sherry - now that she had invaded my thoughts, I figured we could be on a first name basis – popped into my head. What was I doing? This driver had made an effort to transport me through Friday rush hour in San Francisco, for ninety solid minutes, battling horrific traffic, simply so that I could avoid having to drive in it myself, so that I could relax and not worry about road rage, inattentive drivers, and so that I could destress after a long day. Shouldn’t I honor that by Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle style?
When the driver picked me up, I learned from my phone app that his name was Carlos. I wondered if I would I have asked his name, or him mine, without a phone app to engender this simple courtesy. When he asked my destination, I noted what I thought to be a Russian accent. I was tired and really not in the mood for meaningless conversation, like asking him where he was from, which I was sure he’d been asked a million times.
Making a snap judgment about him, as we are prone to do when first meeting someone who is only passing through our lives for a brief moment, he seemed like a nice enough guy, perhaps a bit shy hiding behind those rectangular wire glasses and a pockmarked face. He was about my age, nearing sixty, trim, sporting jeans, a short-sleeved blue t-shirt, with a patch of dark hair barely clinging on beyond a receding hairline.
However, as “Russian” Carlos adjusted the volume of the radio, I noticed what appeared to be a photo of a voluptuous redhead displayed on his dashboard, breasts spilling out of a low-cut top. My female hackles raised over this offensive photo, I justified my earlier decision to not open up a dialog with him. Sorry Sherry.
Sure, he could still be a nice guy, but what if he was a Russian pimp working the freeways to find lonely men he could hook up with the Russian mail order brides he displayed on his dashboard? Did I really want to carry on a conversation with him? “Okay, that’s really ridiculous,” I thought, my mind just a bit carried away in my exhaustion. Focus, Susan, back to Sherry Turkle, Sherry Turkle, Sherry Turkle. Reclaim some conversation.
I placed my phone back in my purse and pondered what ice breaker to use. Probably not “how many Russian mail order brides have you married off this week?" He must have read my mind, because when he saw me put my phone down, he asked me how my day was going. Wow, how was my day going? What a simple, yet thoughtful question, after I had just fretted over what kind of interesting dialogue I could open with? Did he really care how my day was going or was he just trying to create conversation, too? I mean, how many studies have shown that when most people say, “how are you?” they really don’t care how you really are; they are just in the rote habit of asking.
Regardless, he was making the effort at conversation, when I hadn’t, so I told him my day was fabulous, because shouldn’t every day be fabulous? A little over the top perhaps, but it was true, and he agreed, so weren’t we off to a fine start in reclaiming some conversation? He told me that he was grateful for every day, too, because he came from Brazil, and… Wait a minute, I lost my train of thought here. He was from Brazil, not Russia? Then who was the mail order bride he had displayed on his dashboard? Or was it his wife? Why would he put such a scantily clad photo of her in his professional ride share vehicle?
Offended by this impropriety, I glanced one more time at the dashboard and noticed the photo was gone. What? Where had it gone? It was then that I realized it was not a photo after all, but an iPod where he played his music, and the photos changed out to the artist singing or the album cover. Sorry Sherry, I was a bit chagrined that this reclaiming conversation hadn’t started very well.
I had to try again. But I was still stuck in my disbelief that I could have mixed up a Russian accent with a Brazilian accent. They aren’t anything alike. As if to confuse me further, around that time, he received a phone call, which he apologized for and said it would be just a moment. I assumed from the caller ID name and the foreign language in which he spoke that it was his wife. I do not understand Portuguese, but what I did understand was him saying, multiple times, “da, da.” Isn’t that Russian for “yes, yes?” So was he really Russian? Is there such a thing as a Brazilian Russian?
Back to reclaiming our conversation, I asked why he had moved from Brazil to San Francisco. “No, not to San Francisco,” he responded, “but first to New Jersey.” He explained that he was married with two daughters and it was no longer safe in Sao Paulo. He was also concerned because the government was corrupt, and people were suffering. He wanted a better life for his family and came to America to fulfill that desire.
So how did he end in San Francisco from New Jersey? It turns out that Russian-Brazilian Carlos has two brilliant daughters, one who was pursuing her Ph.D. at Stanford University in biological science, and the other who is a doctor of psychology, who also studied in California.
Carlos explained that he and his wife had just been working in New Jersey, at what he called “immigrant jobs” to make ends meet, but realized they could do this just as easily in California, and thus be closer to their daughters. He now worked as a ride share driver and his wife as a cook for a Palo Alto family, five to six days per week, for at least eight to ten hours per day, just to make ends meet and pay the rent on their little house.
I was thinking how that life sounded like such drudgery, when he continued and told me how grateful he was to have cut down from working seven days a week in New Jersey, because now his daughters were grown and he and his wife could slow down and enjoy life a little more. Yes, to him, working only 5-6 days a week was slowing down.
He told me that he and his wife didn’t have one cent in savings, but he was happy with the legacy he was leaving to his daughters. He had given them a better life, including an outstanding education so that they could support themselves. And I thought to myself, “Sherry Turkle, thank you. Had it not been for your book, I would not have been inspired to put my cell phone down to reclaim a little conversation.”
What would have happened if I had stayed on my cell phone during the drive? I would not have heard this remarkable immigrant story. I would not have come to admire and respect another human being in such a brief period of time. And I would not have tipped him well, probably penalizing him for getting lost multiple times during our commute.
In short, I would have had no empathy for this complete stranger. I would have viewed him merely as a means for transporting me from one destination to the next, and nothing more. But thanks to Sherry Turkle, I reclaimed some conversation, and in so doing, I got in touch with my humanity. And all I had to do was put down my cell phone for a brief period of time.