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Disrupting the intimacy of face-to-face conversation

Andy Visser

5 September 2018: The intimacy of conversation is fast becoming undermined as previous social norms and face-to-face conversations are being disrupted by digital media.

Sparked by a desire to understand the impact of digital media on teaching environments, University of Canberra sociologist Dr Michael Walsh soon found himself investigating the influence of communication technologies on face-to-face interactions.

In his new paper co-authored with Dr Shannon Clark (Visiting Fellow at the University of Canberra) Co-Present Conversation as “Socialized Trance”: Talk, Involvement Obligations and Smart-Phone Disruption, Dr Walsh sheds light on the impacts and effects of digital media disruption on social engagements in various forms.

He determined that online study may be a convenient alternative to in-class study, but it has removed dynamic and embodied human interactions from the learning process, which is an essential part of conversational experiences both in and out of the classroom.

“What started as a tool for connecting with others at a distance has infiltrated our lives to the point of full enmeshment with our personal networks,” Dr Walsh said.

“Today’s children have almost no sense of life without cellphones and they struggle to disengage from the device whether in a class, exam or at a social occasion.”

Conversation requires collaborative maintenance otherwise it becomes jilted. Dr Walsh said if we do not fully comprehend the micro impact of digital media on our conversations, our relationships could suffer.

Most people can relate to that awkward silence as a cellphone rings mid-sentence and an entirely new person enters the ‘room’; the atmosphere changes and the conversation loses impetus.

While conversation may seem chaotic to the untrained eye, conversation analysts inform us that it is highly organised and is intended to have a beginning, middle and end. There are also verbal and non-verbal cues along with anticipations such as intonation and facial expression that fundamentally shape conversation, making it far more personal, engaging and invigorating.

Failure to close a conversation appropriately, for example, means that both parties are deprived of the satisfaction of bringing their conversation to a mutual conclusion.

“It has become socially acceptable to keep our phones, tablets or laptops with us in various face-to-face interactions such as meetings, classrooms and even a coffee date with a friend,” he said.

“Mutual settlement of a conversation is crucial to human engagement. Phone use can dislodge engagement making it even more important to find the balance between phone use and face to face interaction.”

The study found that it is possible to find a balance, but it takes intention, action and consideration.

“Without being prescriptive it may become necessary for us to determine when it would be appropriate to put a phone away, switch it off or keep it on silent,” Dr Walsh said.

“As parents and teachers, we need to understand the importance of engaging with our children and students without disruptions and split attention. This will teach them to intuitively understand the nuances of conversation that will help them build meaningful relationships.”

But digital media is here to stay, Dr Walsh said, adding that it is functional to our existence and will continue to infiltrate people’s daily interactions.

“The key is to find a balance that works for you. Reflect on your device usage, make a few changes and see what happens when next you meet a friend for lunch,” Dr Walsh said.

Read the Symbolic Interaction article here. A video abstract is also available here.