Since the pandemic began in spring 2020, most people have done a pretty good job of adapting to talking with colleagues, friends, and family members via computers and phones – not least because there was no other choice. But like it or not, we’re all going to have to get used to talking with people face-to-face again in the near future as the vaccine goes mainstream and social restrictions are gradually lifted. And after spending so long apart, that’s going to require us to relearn how to read non-verbal cues, stop looking down at our phones (and all the other distracted behaviors we get away with on video calls), and practice a new level of presentness. Here are a few ways to prepare yourself for a return to rich, meaningful in-person conversations.
Emphasize Connection Over Transaction
In her profound book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle advises framing face-to-face conversations with a friend, family member, or new acquaintance differently than the transactional ones you might have via a video call with a colleague. During a work call, you usually have some kind of agenda, both parties need to exchange information to advance a project, and you’re all too aware of the next meeting that’s coming up in just a few minutes’ time.
“There is another way to think about conversation, one that is less about information and more about creating a space to be explored,” she wrote. “You are interested in hearing about how another person approaches things—her or her opinions and associations. In this kind of conversation—I think of it as 'whole person conversation'—if things go quiet for a while you look deeper, you don't look away or text a friend. You try to read your friends in a different way. Perhaps you look into their faces or attend to their body language. Or you allow for silence.”
Let’s be honest – getting back into the rhythm of in-person conversation is going to take a while because we’ve all been isolated for so long. No matter how many video calls you’ve had since the pandemic started, it’s likely that sitting down across from another human being is going to feel strange at first. You’re going to have to brush up on the art of active listening, resist the temptation to steer topics back to the business at hand, and get used to the interruptions, pauses, and tangents that constitute real, in-depth conversation. But if you stick with it, you’ll learn to quiet your distracted mind, fully engage with other people, and, according to a study out of Rollins College, increase your empathy for and understanding of the people around you.
Just because you can get away with sending a text, checking your social feeds, or looking at visual voicemail on your phone while you’re on a Zoom call doesn’t mean you should bring the same bad habits into a face-to-face conversation. The phenomenon of phubbing – snubbing someone in favor of fiddling with your mobile phone – is all too common. No matter what excuse or disclaimer you try to provide, like “Sorry” or “This’ll just take a moment,” when you turn your attention down and away from another person to pay attention to your device, you break the flow of the discussion, make them feel less important, and signal that you’re not truly present.
Research published in Computers in Human Behavior shows that phubbing makes romantic partners feel undervalued and contributes to depression. Another study released via the Journal of Applied Social Psychologynoted that merely imagining being phubbed made people less satisfied by a conversation. “Ironically, phubbing is meant to connect you, presumably, with someone through social media or texting,” Stanford and Yale psychologist Emma Seppälä told a writer at Time. “But it actually can severely disrupt your present-moment, in-person relationships.”
Sometimes it’s tempting to just put your phone in silent mode and leave it on the table while you focus on the person in front of you. Yet while this is better than letting your device chirp away like a tree full of noisy birds, it doesn’t have the positive effect you might hope for. A research duo at the University of Essex in England found that even “the presence of mobile phones can interfere with human relationships” and is detrimental to “closeness, connection, and conversation quality.” So if you’re serious about being a committed conversationalist, leave your portable distraction device in your glove box or at home so you can fully focus on the person you’re talking to.
Fuel Conversations with Curiosity
Long before his films and TV shows were nominated for 43 Academy Awards and 198 Emmys, Brian Grazer was a young law clerk looking to break into Hollywood. To do so, he set a goal of meeting at least one new person every day. This wasn’t some kind of shameless glad-handing and Grazer made it clear that he didn’t want to talk to someone just because he thought they might give him a job. He wanted to better understand the entertainment business and what each person’s role in it was so that when his time came, he was ready to make an impact from day one.
Once he eventually got his break and started rising up through the production ranks, Grazer realized that the industry was very insular and he didn’t only want to sit down with actors, directors, and studio executives. So he changed his goal and used his innate curiosity to seek out people from other fields who he found interesting and whose background and experiences were different from his own. Reflecting on 35+ years of these “curiosity conversations” with everyone from Princess Diana to Barack Obama to Beyonce in his book A Curious Mind(perhaps a play on the title of his film A Beautiful Mind, for which Russell Crowe received an Oscar nomination), Grazer wrote:
“Those conversations are like a mutual fund – a long-term investment in dozens of different people, personalities, specialties, themes. Some of them will be interesting at the moment we’re having the conversation, but not afterward. Some of them aren’t even interesting while we’re doing them. And some of them will pay off hugely in the long term...But just like with the stock market, you don’t know in advance which conversations will perform, and which won’t. So you just keep doing them – you invest a little bit of effort across a wide range of time, space, and people, confident that it’s the right thing to do.”So what’s the takeaway from Grazer’s ode to conversation? Seek out people who you’re curious about and make an effort to schedule a sit-down with them. It could be someone in your field who’s a few steps ahead of you on your career path – in which case, Grazer said you’ll be surprised how open they might be to talking with you if you drop them a line. Or maybe it’s somebody who seems to lead a fascinating life in a field completely unrelated to your own. Perhaps it’s a new acquaintance who you keep meaning to meet up with but never have. Follow Grazer’s lead and let curiosity guide you into new conversations and friendships with people from all walks of life.