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Is Conversation Gone for Good?

It's time we all started tweeting less and talking more.

On a sparkling Sunday afternoon recently, I found myself in our local Baltimore park, sitting on a blanket with my 5-year-old daughter, consumed by an e-mail that appeared on my brand-new iPhone—a legitimately important communication from my employer that demanded a timely response. She chattered on (my daughter, that is, not my boss) about peanut butter and birds and how to sing "This Land Is Your Land" while I tapped out my reply.

Hitting "Send," I felt a flush of satisfaction—that's one less e-mail to deal with tomorrow morning—and plowed back into my in box, looking for more chores to dispatch. Then I blinked up to see all the other silently staring parents, slumped on benches or standing around, buried in the screens of their own smartphones. The kids ignored them; they ignored the kids; the birds sang, and the sun shone. And that flush faded to something closer to a chill.

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned conversation?

I'm not the only one who has been struck by the eerie quiet that surrounds us nowadays. "We have all these invisible walls built by iPods and cell phones," says Daniel Menaker, who crusades for traditional, face-to-face connection in his new book, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. "Not to be apocalyptic, but I'm very worried. There's a social obligation to be available in a public space."

Though hand-held devices now encroach on some treasured preserves of good talk—restaurant meals, an afternoon at the ballpark, the privacy of your car—Menaker's chief villain isn't technology per se but our work-obsessed lives. A job culture that demands always-on connectivity is flooding our days and nights with the clipped conventions and I-want-it-yesterday expectations of the work-place. The result: a nation of hyperconnected hermits, thumbs furiously working our BlackBerrys, each of us a master of an ever-smaller personal universe.

To Menaker, a longtime editor at The New Yorker and Random House, this isn't just a public irritation; it's a cultural crisis. "The great yearning in human relationships is to stop acting, to become without disguise," he says. "That may be what sex is about, to some extent. And when people talk to each other face-to-face, they get some of those rewards. It is not explicitly sexual in nature, but intercourse is a name for conversation, after all."

By his standards, too much of my own talk is results-oriented instead of people-oriented. Like many two-career parents with small children, my wife and I communicate largely in grunts, gestures, marching orders, and brisk status reports. Gotta get to the dentist on Wednesday. Don't forget we're out of Cocoa Puffs. How am I going to get my work done this week? The closest things to conversation I've had recently were threads of comments on Facebook posts—intermittent volleys of confession, gossip, and one-liners from my socially networked "friends" online. But this improbable mix of personalities has never shared real-life space, and it's not as if we're deepening our connections as we swap snark over the latest celebrity excess.

We're in danger of becoming a nation of hyperconnected hermits, thumbs furiously working our BlackBerrys.

Harvard psychiatrist Richard S. Schwartz, M.D., believes our new digital habits are feeding a trend already familiar in our mobile society: "We move a lot, and that widens and weakens our connections with other people," he says. "Technology creates this same widening and weakening." Schwartz is the author, with his wife, psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, M.D., of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, which diagnoses the central paradox of contemporary life—simultaneous connection and isolation. So diminished is our understanding of the value of being in the same room that Schwartz sometimes finds himself explaining to potential patients why therapy sessions, for example, should be conducted in person. "They ask me, 'Can't we do this over the phone?'"

This is not the first time disruptive technologies have threatened conversation. A few generations ago the main offender was radio. At 68, Menaker is old enough to hear, in his own stance, his father's disdain for television. Menaker places the golden age of conversation in the preindustrial era, among the salons and coffeehouses of 18th-century Europe, and credits talk back then with helping to hone new ideas, soothe political passions, and generally weld together a civil society. With the rise of digital communications, says Menaker, we are in danger of losing that well-trod path to humane regard. "There's a bleed from the Internet into ordinary conversation—people seem to feel freer now in person to do the kind of rant and denunciation you run across in anonymous postings on-line," he says. "What I find unfortunate is the loss of a layer of insulation where you're courteous and receive courtesy in return."

Raw exchanges among strangers is one thing. But is texting and other electronic chitchat such a danger among family and friends?

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., who has made a career of unraveling the peculiarities of how people talk to one another, is more sanguine than gloomy about the future of talk. In research on how sisters communicate, for example, she found that many stay in touch via e-mail better than they once did by telephone. "New technologies amplify different opposing things, the good and the bad," says the Georgetown University linguist. "People should not ask if conversation is in decline, but how it is changing."

A former editor in chief of Reader's Digest, Jacqueline Leo, agrees. She cites grown children whose relationships with their parents are flourishing because of e-mail, where "ideas are more important than tone of voice." (In person those conversations would likely be reduced to "Why don't you get a haircut?" she observes.)

In Leo's book Seven: The Number for Happiness, Love, and Success, she counsels putting people first—or at least not eighth, since she deems seven the maximum number of priorities you can have at one time. For her, restoring human contact becomes a simple management problem. We are so distracted by digital traffic that we're forgetting the importance of listening—and of the listener. "Our own conceit becomes one of the reasons people can't put their machines down," Leo says of our addiction to electronic communication. "They make us feel too important."

It's true: texting during a business meeting has become a display of power that trumps any perceived breach of etiquette. And it wasn't the first blow to listening. Even before I armed myself with an iPhone to try to keep up with the e-mails pinging on my computer, I'd find my hands typing responses to one person while I talked with another on the office phone; often neither interaction made much sense.

The experts counsel that getting away from this juggling act requires actively claiming time and space for personal interactions, uninterrupted by digital harassment. To get a refresher in the finer points of social speech, I went to lunch with an older friend at his private club—the kind of haven, in days long past, where Baltimore's elite might unwind the issues of the day between cocktails and cigars. Here, I thought, I would find the real deal: a BlackBerry-free space engineered for old-school adult conversation, peopled by dedicated adherents of the art.

We did begin with drinks, then were ushered into a dining room with a single oval table, so each of us could face the others. Every Friday one member typically taps a wineglass and calls for group conversation on a given topic. As a carafe of white wine made its rounds, a dozen of us tossed around the virtues of talking. One member compared the group's often-wandering conversations to pure science, a freeform inquiry pursued for its own sake, without regard to practical application.

Then, as if on cue, the conversation lighted out for the territories, propelled by its own curious logic. Someone told the story of how a former club member, after being elected to public office, was expelled because of his tendency to speechify. That led to some wistful observations about the recent shuttering of one of the city's once-powerful political clubs, and the vanishing opportunities to hobnob with political figures in the flesh. The retail politicking of the New Hampshire presidential primaries came up, and a member described his mixed feelings upon meeting and being charmed by an unpopular recent president; another told of the opposite experience with a beloved pope.

The slender thread connecting this profusion of anecdotes was the transformative power of human contact. But each member's asides and stories also offered an object lesson, illuminating glimpses into their lives. A retired judge revealed herself to be a die-hard fan of Jack the Ripper lore; a 70-something former journalist from Alabama spoke with wonder of reconnecting with long-lost elementary-school mates online—and then being taken aback by their unreconstructed racism. I learned about their hobbies, their children, their prejudices and passions. They hadn't shared only a few random anecdotes; they had shared themselves.

After two hours I found myself in the street outside, buzzing not from the rare midday drinking but from something even less frequent: the chance to get to know a gaggle of strangers.

On the way home my friend, a club member for more than 30 years, told of how he'd dropped out of the club many years earlier. He was busy with his career and family, same as I am. And who had two hours for lunch midweek? But one day the club president called with a request too compelling to ignore.

"Why don't you come back?" he asked. "We love to hear you talk."

David Dudley is the editor of Urbanite magazine in Baltimore.

Additional reporting by Allan Fallow.

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