in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #155: Reclaiming Conversation

More and more today, we’re communicating with the people in our lives through screens. While this has greatly improved the efficiency of communication, there are some drawbacks that have come with the decline in face-to-face conversation. My guest today, Dr. Sherry Turkle, has written a book entitled Reclaiming Conversation about what we’re missing when we don’t talk with people in person. In today’s show we discuss the downsides of communicating via computers and smartphones and what we can do to reclaim meaningful conversation with the people in our lives. If you enjoyed our post about the power of conversation in the lives of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, you’re going to enjoy this podcast.

Show Highlights

  • Why Sherry, an MIT professor, went from being absolutely enthusiastic about advances in communication technology to wanting to examine its downsides in a balanced way
  • How our technology is making us less empathetic
  • What we sacrifice for the communication efficiency that comes with email, texting, and social media
  • Why the fear of spontaneity is a big factor holding people back from conversation
  • How your diet of “junk food” media and communication is starving you emotionally and intellectually
  • Why businesses should encourage their employees to communicate face-to-face more and not through email or chat
  • How anonymous internet mobs get in the way of productive conversation
  • Why we self-censor online and why that could be bad for liberal democracy
  • Why solitude is the beginning of good conversation
  • Steps you can take to reclaim conversation in your own life
  • And much more!

Reclaiming conversation book cover Sherry Turkle.

I’ve become more and more convinced that getting people together so they can talk face-to-face is something that is vital for a flourishing life and a thriving community. After reading Reclaiming Conversation, I’ve been making efforts to get more of it in my own life. If you’re ready to take a hard look at the role of tech in your communication and how it’s robbing you of one of life’s greatest pleasures, then read this book. It’s a powerful jeremiad (in the most positive sense), and it’ll leave you inspired to have more face-to-face conversations with friends and family.

Tell Sherry Turkle “Thanks for being on the Art of Manliness Podcast!”


Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the The Art of Manliness podcast. More and more today, we are communicating with the people in our lives via screens. Might be your desktop, with email or instant message, or it might be on your smartphone with text messaging or Twitter or Facebook. While there have been some great benefits of this advance in communication technology, it’s efficient, etc. etc., there are some drawbacks that have come with the decline in face-to-face conversation.

My guest today on the podcast has written a book making the case, what we’re missing out by not engaging in face-to-face talk and open-ended conversation. Her name is Sherry Turkle. She’s a professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT in Massachusetts. Her latest book is “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” Today on the podcast we discuss what we miss out whenever we don’t engage in face-to-face conversation, and what we can do to reclaim conversation in our own lives with the people around us. Great podcast with a lot of great tips that you can actually implement today in your life to bring back open-ended conversation. Without further ado, Sherry Turkle, reclaiming conversation.

All right, Sherry Turkle, welcome to the show.

Sherry Turkle: My pleasure.

Brett McKay: Your latest book is “Reclaiming Conversation” and you’ve written about how technology and communication and humanity intersects because you’re a professor of Social Sciences and Technology at MIT. I’m curious. You’ve warned about the ill effects that technology can have on our lives in your work. Have you always had a wary eye towards technology or was there a time in your career where like most people, thought that things like the internet, texting, email, could improve communication, make society better?

Sherry Turkle: I still think that the internet can make society better. I think it does in many ways make society better, but I think that we have to use it in ways that will make sure that happens and just be more discriminating because I think we use it in some ways making our lot worse. There was a time when I was less aware I think, of the … As we all were, of what the problematic issues were. I think I was more generally enthusiastic. That was really when things began, I would say up to the mid-90’s, when the part of the internet I focused on was how it allowed us to play with issues of identity. That was very exciting. I still think that that’s a very thrilling part of the internet. We’ve seen the dark side of that. We’ve seen that people when they’re anonymous online, can become very cruel. It certainly is a case … Anonymity is not just a … It doesn’t allow you to play with identity, it allows you to feel no accountability. That’s something that we’ve all learned, again with practice in this medium.

I would say that through the 90’s I was more an enthusiast than a critic. Then in terms of my own biography, my own intellectual biography, I met two technologies that sort of took me aback and made me more critical. Those were sociable robotics. Robots that pretend to have empathy. Robots that say they love you, care about you, that pretend to have a relationship with you. I think this has some very toxic effects.

Also I began to see the downside of what I call always on, or always on you, technology. Something like our phones where, because they’re always on us, always on our bodies, we tend to turn away from the people we’re with and turn towards our phones. I became more focused on looking at these two technologies and taking the measure of the problems that they are causing us.

Brett McKay: What led you to conversation? I think all of us intuitively understand that we’re not very good at having conversations. What led you down this path to look at how technology has affected the way we interact face-to-face in having conversations?

Sherry Turkle: What sociable robotics and always on technology has in common is that they take us away from conversations that count. If you give your child a Hello Barbie, which is a robot doll that says, “Hello, I love you. Talk to me about your sister. I have a sister. I’m jealous of my sister. Do you have … ” You know, pretends to want to have a conversation with you about your sister. You’re not talking to your child about her feelings. Therefore, cutting off a conversation that might lead to really the development of empathy, the development of relationship in the way that talking to a robot doll is never going to do.

Similarly, if you put a phone down on a table between two people who are having a meal, research shows that the empathy between those two people, literally the connection they feel toward each other, will go way down. The things they will talk about will become more trivial, because it sort of makes sense. We don’t want to share much of ourselves if we feel we’re going to be interrupted. Not only do we talk about things that are more trivial, but we also feel less connection with the people we’re with. Neither of these things are good.

Brett McKay: I guess you also talk about how there’s research showing now that young people are becoming less and less empathetic, and that might be because of smartphones and internet communication.

Sherry Turkle: Yes, there’s a forty percent decline in every way we know how to judge empathy among college students in the past twenty years. The greatest decline being in the past ten years. We have every reason to think that’s because of smartphones. It makes sense because we’re … Empathy is born in the conversations where you look somebody in the eye and you sense their body, you sense their pauses, their stops, their starts. You’re really paying attention to them. That’s not going to happen if you interrupt that conversation to go to your phone.

It turns out that eighty-nine percent of Americans say in the most recent study, that in their last conversation, they took out a phone. They literally say, “In my last social interaction, I took out a phone.” Eighty-two percent say that it deteriorated the conversation. This is something that we know. We know that we’re doing to each other. We know is not good for our conversations, but we’re doing it anyway, but we don’t have to. In other words, I’m very optimistic because it turns out that in only five days at a summer camp without phones, those empathy numbers come right back up. We can reclaim conversation and reclaim empathy and reclaim the kinds of relationships that we deserve to have with each other.

Brett McKay: It sounds like empathy is a lot like a muscle, right? You use it or lose it.

Sherry Turkle: Absolutely. Empathy is what we’re pre-wired for. In other words, the muscle is there to be used. It’s designed to grow, but if you don’t use it, you won’t have it. It’s like an apology. When you apologize to someone, so much work is done. You get to say, I’m sorry. You get to see the other person feeling sad and hurt, but they get to see you being sorry. Then they feel compassionate, and then you see that there’s an opening because they feel compassionate, so that you can use that opening to make a space for something new to happen. It’s really fantastic. I mean it’s really fantastic. All of the things that can happen in apology.

Brett McKay: That’s can’t happen online, right? Or in a text message.

Sherry Turkle: No. It can’t. Unfortunately, it can’t.

Brett McKay: I’m sure there’s people out there, and you’ve probably heard these counter arguments, that are saying, “Oh well, we’re over-romanticizing conversation. We forget about the awkward silences and the angry outbursts and the tediousness of asking, what do you think of the weather today, you know small talk.” Technology eliminates that with apps like Tinder. People no longer have to figure out, can I make the transition from just being friends to romance because everyone on Tinder is already there for romance. You don’t have to worry about small talk. She’s got a swipe, text messaging eliminates … You can answer when you’re ready to answer.

Sherry Turkle: All of this. I want to be in conversation with these people because they have something wrong. It reminds me of my students who don’t want to come to office hours, but who want to send me an email asking me the perfect question so I can send them the perfect answer back. They’re turning what should be a rich conversation into a transaction, and forgetting that what’s supposed to happen between a professor and a student is not that they’re going to ask me the perfect question and I’m going to give them the perfect answer, but that on the contrary, they’re going to give me the imperfect idea and I’m going to say, “Hey, that’s not a great idea, but I’m going to stick with you and talk with you and we’re going to have a relationship and we’re going to make this better.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, so it seems like we …

Sherry Turkle: That’s what they’re missing. They’re missing that these conversations that they’re calling small talk. These are the non-transactional conversations where you build a relationship, get to know about another person. Get to understand how somebody else thinks. That’s the business of conversation. It’s not an algorithm. I think that I’m arguing for the work that conversation can do that is not the work of an algorithm. Tinder is an algorithm. I’m not saying that it doesn’t get two people together to meet, but once you meet you’d better be ready to talk if you want to have a conversation.

Brett McKay: It seems like the friction that happens in conversation opens up, I guess spontaneity. That’s something I feel all of us want. Control over everything, aspects of our life, and with conversations sometimes you can’t control that. It feels scary, but at the same time it opens up new opportunities because you might go somewhere you didn’t think you were going to go before.

Sherry Turkle: Yeah, I think that a lot of what people are afraid now about is spontaneity. I talked to one young man about conversation and why he would do anything to avoid it. I said, “What’s wrong with conversation?” He said, “Conversation, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation, it takes place in real time, and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” He’s just so right, and yet that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. He was seeing that as a bad thing.

I think that our phones make us … I sometimes say they make us three gifts, as though they were gifts from genies. A powerful, benevolent genie, but who didn’t understand much about people and what they really need. Which is we never have to be alone, we can put our attention to wherever we want it to be, we never have to be bored. We never really have to deal with our vulnerability. Actually, those things, even though they feel so seductive, they’re really not that great for us to live like that. I think that’s the challenge is that we’re offered possibilities that really aren’t that great for us. That’s what we’re struggling with now.

Brett McKay: It seems … You made this analogy in your book too, it’s sort of like nutrition was maybe ten years ago. We all love fast food, it’s delicious because it has that fat and we’re primed evolutionary, because of evolution to seek that out, but we have an over-abundance of it now. Consequently, we’ve gotten obese because of it as a society. Isn’t it the same thing with information? We feel drawn to having these sips of conversation via text and email, but in the end it’s not very good for us.

Sherry Turkle: Yes. Also, the analogy to the fast food actually gives me … It’s interesting because it also gives me a little hope paradoxically, because I was raised by a mother who thought that giving the best nutrition to her precious little Sherry was white bread. I remember it had these balloons on it, and each balloon stood for a different vitamin that was injected into this white bread somehow. I had soup that mostly tasted of sugar and salt. Those were the main flavor, it had some tomato flavoring I think, but I think it was mostly sugar and salt. Then I had a fruit in a base of sugary syrup. Really, this was … If I had a daughter and if I had fed her these foods, I would have … The only excuse would have been that I was doing like a Mad Men retrospective or something. I would have been considered an abusive mother.

Gradually, that was industry telling Americans what it wanted us to eat, to feed a new kind of industrial model of how they were stocking supermarket shelves. Americans in this culture gradually and it’s not completely … It hasn’t completely changed yet, but gradually people said, “You know what, I don’t think so. I actually don’t think so. I don’t think I want to eat like this. This really doesn’t feel so good. This isn’t feeling good to me.” Gradually, people changed their food habits.

I think that we are at a moment when we are actually ready to change our phone habits because so many people that I interviewed were not happy campers. It’s not as though, people criticize my work and say, “Oh my gosh, she doesn’t appreciate how much we know from the internet.” I really do. I want to continue using all that great stuff that it gives us, but we use it in some ways that really are making people quite unhappy with their lives.

Like I’m thinking of this one father who I interviewed who talked about giving his older daughter a bath when she was a younger girl. When she was a toddler. Now she’s eleven. Now he has a two year old, and he doesn’t … When he gives her a bath, he just leaves her in the bathtub and he sits on the toilet bowl with the seat down, he does his mail on his iPhone. He doesn’t even talk to her. He says, “This is terrible. Those conversations I used to have with my older daughter, those were the best. That was incredible. That was the best.” It wasn’t just that he liked them, but as a psychologist I know that he was … That’s where you teach empathy. That’s how it’s done. That’s how you teach a kind of continuity of parental care, and how to have a conversation, and not to be afraid of a spontaneous conversation. Intimacy. That’s where all that work is done. Now he’s miserable and his daughter isn’t getting what she needs to get. He’s not happy.

I think that people are really ready for a change. That’s the bottom line. I think that even younger people, people who are particularly like fourteen, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year olds whose parents are texting at breakfast and dinner. Whose dads never took them for a walk to the corner store without bringing their phones. These are kids who are ready for a change.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was interesting, the interviews you did with the younger people. They were the ones who were instigating. They were telling their parents, “Get off your phone, we’re at dinner.”

Sherry Turkle: Yes.

Brett McKay: That was so bizarre. Usually you think it’s the other way around.

Sherry Turkle: No. I think that that’s a misperception because we think … So many people say to me, “Well, how do they know to do that?” Because they never knew anything different. This is on this model that somehow young people need to be taught that it would be a good thing for their parents to talk to them. That’s like the model, but they’ve never had it, so how are they going to know that it would be a good thing for their parents to talk to them? I can see why we get into that way of thinking. It’s like it should be a cognitive learning that your parents should talk to you. It turns out that kids really just want their parents’ attention. They seem to know and crave it without … In a culture where they don’t have it.

I can just report that from the front lines that this desire seems to pop up even when parents don’t give it, children seem to want it. Or on the playground. Parents sit there with … One of my big advice points to parents is that if you cannot, if you simply cannot spend three hours on the playground with your kid paying attention to them because you have too much work to do on your phone, don’t go to the playground for three hours. Stay home. That’s okay. Go to the playground for a half hour. What’s terrible, I mean what’s awful, is parents who are going to the playground with their children sort of begging them to pay attention to them. These kids are being ignored. Stay home. Do your work and keep your phone at home when you go to the playground so when you’re there you can pay attention to your kids.

It’s the same thing with the school games. You see the parents who have gone to the school game. They’ve gone to the school game, but they go to a school game and then at the game, they’re texting. It’s bad.

Brett McKay: Yeah. They’re there, but they’re not there.

Sherry Turkle: They’re there, but they’re not there. Kids realize it and they’re quite upset.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think most people have a tendency to think of conversation as part of our personal lives and that, yeah we should take more measures to ensure that we have more of these face-to-face moments with our family and our friends. You make this interesting case in your book that we need to do this in business as well. How is it that face-to-face conversations can improve business productivity and profitability? Most people think the cooler talk and things like that, that’s just a waste of time. They should be on the computers, getting stuff done. How can these face-to-face spontaneous conversations at the office help us do better work?

Sherry Turkle: It’s great you ask that because dramatically research has shown that face-to-face conversation is good for the bottom line. It increases productivity, it increases creativity and collaboration, and companies that make room for it make more money. The work of Ben Waber, who’s a colleague of mine and he began at MIT and now he has his own company. What he did was he actually put badges, I mean electronic interactive, highly interactive badges on people. Sensing badges that sensed if they were having conversation, what kind of conversation. Who they were having conversation with. He found that those workers who talked more to their co-workers were more productive. Groups of workers who talk together were more productive. Giving workers a coffee break at the same time increases the productivity of that whole group. One of the least productive things you can do it turns out, is the thing that makes you feel more productive, which is going into your office, putting on your headphones, or going into your cubicle, putting on your headphones, laying out your one or two phones. Opening up your screen with all its windows, and starting in on those emails.

One lawyer who I spoke to called that the pilot in the cockpit. The lawyers who do that are the pilots in the cockpit. They’re not working with their colleagues. They’re not really getting done what needs to get done in the firm, which is working together, talking to clients. These people tend to avoid client meetings and prefer to send emails. That is not how relationships form. It’s not how really the work of the firm gets done. They don’t go to the lunch room to talk to their colleagues. They stay in their office. They don’t go to meetings with senior lawyers to listen to conference calls to see how senior lawyers conduct negotiations. They listen to those calls on speaker from their office so that they can multi-task and continue to work on their email. It’s a very common pattern.

We think that we’re being smart when we do that. Actually, we are taking ourselves out of the mainstream of what will make us successful, which is relationships, knowing how to talk to people, knowing how to close a deal, knowing how to be sensitive to other people and understand them.

Brett McKay: It reduces that spontaneity again, right?

Sherry Turkle: Again. The most successful people are not people who are dedicated to emptying out their inbox. They don’t care about their inbox. They care about what they’re doing proactively. What they’re writing, what they’re thinking. The transactional and responsive reactive things that they can do with their inbox, once a day, once every two or more days, once a week, they’ll put in some time. They’re not irresponsible.

My favorite tip to people who want to be really productive at work is to send out messages that say, “I’m thinking.” Watch people go crazy and watch those messages go viral. Now, it depends of course at what level you are in an organization. You can’t make this conversation revolution if you’re just starting out, you have to begin to enlist other people to argue with you that you will be more creative and … You have to work in the firm where you can work on changing the culture of the firm. I think that there’s more support for this than many people think because firms are realizing …

I went to one firm that had studied the right size of the table in the cafeteria so that people would sit together and talk. How long a wait there should be on the line in the cafeteria so that people would chat, that wouldn’t feel that the line was too long. Everything for conversation. In other words, they had read Ben Waber’s research. They knew how important conversation was. Yet, they also demanded that the highest value really was being always on the company messaging system. If you didn’t respond to a message within, I don’t know fifteen, twenty minutes, a half hour, somehow you weren’t showing devotion.

You can’t have it both ways. That company is starting to … There’s a lot of pressure there to turn things around and to … If they’re going to talk the talk, they have to walk the walk. Conversation really has to be a way of life within the culture of the company. It can’t be slogans or cappuccino machines or micro-kitchens. It really has to be how you run your business.

Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting too how CEO’s are starting to implement basically like social skills classes for their newer recruits, because these young people coming out of college, they want to do everything by email or text messaging.

Sherry Turkle: Yes. That is very common. It’s very common to have CEO’s saying … Several CEO’s have said that they spend what they consider an unconscionable amount of time on social … I mean they don’t even know how to put it, kind of social skills training.

Brett McKay: Etiquette? Yeah.

Sherry Turkle: Getting people to be together and hang out with each other and apologize to each other, instead of sending each other crazy emails constantly. Which is what they were doing.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve had those experiences. I work from home and so a lot of people I work with, it’s remote. I guess that’s another problem, right? More and more companies have decided to do this whole remote working thing. It makes it more productive. It saves money, but in the process it sucks at my time. I’ve had email exchanges, like a chain of emails that was sixty emails back and forth, when a simple phone call could have gotten the problem solved in five minutes. No one ever thinks, oh let’s just get on the phone. It’s just let’s keep doing email because this is comfortable.

Sherry Turkle: Yes.

Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting too, you make this point that besides making us less empathetic, our technology … I’m not just talking about smartphones, I’m talking about the services that we use to communicate, so Facebook, Instagram, all that, SnapChat. It changes the way we present ourselves to the world. We sort of self-censor. Some people say why is that so bad? Shouldn’t we self-reflect before we self-reveal things to other people? Why is that bad, if it is bad?

Sherry Turkle: Well, everything in its place. I think this is an example where you want to step back and take a deep breath and say, it’s a matter of degree. I’m presenting myself here to lots of people. There’s a degree of natural editing, so it’s natural that I self-reflect before I self-reveal too much. That’s good. If I’m on Facebook, and I’m presenting myself to the public, it’s natural and good that I self-reflect before I self-reveal. The problem is that we’ve gotten into thinking, and people do that. They present the best meals. The best meals, they have lunch at McDonald’s with really greasy fries, and the shakes.

Brett McKay: It looks great on Instagram.

Sherry Turkle: Yeah, the whole thing. Then for dinner they go to something really elegant and they’re taking pictures, that elegant thing. They’re at some sort of hotel nothing, but then when they do something special all of a sudden, they’re at this fancy hotel. In other words, you present a souped up version of your life. Part of my author tour is very elegant, and really nice. Then really part of it is really terrible. If I was on Facebook telling my followers about my tour, I don’t think it’s the 2:00 in the morning kind of dragging myself through places that are kind of grungy that I would really feature. I want all the glamorous stuff. I’d do the one where the hairdresser and the makeup artist are leaving the hotel, I know. I’m about to be interviewed by somebody awesome. That’s more what I would post.

We all do this. That’s fine. That’s fine if we remember that Facebook is a public place where we’re presenting a public self. Where we want to be a polished up version of us. That’s not how we start to talk about it. We start to talk about it like this is where we have our friends. This is the place for our social life. This is where I talk to my besties. We start to look at that profile as though it really matters. That this is somehow where significant social encounters are happening. Not your PR campaign. In other words, we’re chatting as part of my publicity for my book, and trying to get, I really believe in this conversation, I want to start a movement for conversation. I think that childhood and work and medicine and law, I mean politics, these conversation, I mean I’m on a tear, you know? Naturally, I’m going to edit.

When we’re presenting these kind of edited selves, when we think we’re in our most intimate relationships, and we start to talk about Facebook as part of our intimate life, that is when it becomes a problem. If people talk about Facebook as part of their personal publicity campaign, yeah, that’s right, but they don’t. They talk about it as where they see their identity. What I’ve found is that people look at Facebook, and they see this reflection of themselves that they can barely recognize. They begin to feel this fear of missing, this way that you’d call it, this fear of missing out FoMo.

Brett McKay: FoMo, yeah.

Sherry Turkle: Yeah. They begin to feel it about their own lives. Hold on, who is this person who has this glamorous life? Is that me? I don’t think so, but I put it … You become jealous of yourself. That’s not a good … Alienated from your own experience. That’s not good. That’s really a problem.

Brett McKay: You make a bigger case though with this self-editing thing that it in the end can affect democracy in a lot of ways because people are … Constantly we’re aware that anything we could say at any moment or do, is being not only surveilled, being watched by the government or corporations, but is being watched by others. You can say there’s a tendency for people to self-edit maybe a controversial idea, because they don’t want to suffer the consequences that could come from that idea, whether it’s their job or their social life or whatever.

Sherry Turkle: Absolutely. This is one of the most, I think this is really one of the most important parts of my book. Which is where I discuss the … How should I say? The implications of the way we’re living now for democracy. and the question that we’re not asking ourselves enough of not only can there be intimacy without privacy, but can there be democracy without privacy?

I talk about a young woman who says to me during a time of tremendous political unrest in the United States, I mean it was a moment where a lot of things were happening politically that really were … There was a lot to talk about. She said to me, and this is a woman who had just graduated from an ivy league university, a brilliant young woman about to go into financial services, on top of her game. I mean so smart. She’d majored in economics, and she … So smart. She said, “I’m glad I don’t have anything controversial to say, because I’d have to say it online because that’s the only place to talk, and it would be public and that wouldn’t be good.” In other words, she’s making sure that she doesn’t have anything controversial to say. She’s making sure she doesn’t have anything controversial to say, because saying something controversial would be inconvenient.

That’s how we’re living. Not only that, but there are very interesting studies that show that we post … Getting back to the Facebook effect, online we post what we think our followers will like. That leads us to what’s called the spiral of silence. Where we’re posting more and more of what we think other people will like, so we’re hearing more and more of what people think we’ll like, and we’re saying more and more of what we think people will like. This is not good.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so Michel Focault got it right that we would all self-edit ourselves. That’s how tyranny would come.

Sherry Turkle: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Sherry Turkle: This is a new kind of that. This is kind of taking it to a higher power in a way. We really are.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Let’s talk brass tacks about how you reclaim conversation. You leave some great tips, but I thought it was really interesting, at the start of your book you make the case that one of the first things you have to do to reclaim conversation is to reclaim solitude. I thought that was interesting because there’s all these research … I think people confuse solitude with loneliness. Your previous book was called, “Together Alone or Alone Together.” We’re all feeling more and more lonely, so why would solitude be the first thing we need to do to reclaim conversation?

Sherry Turkle: Well, solitude is not loneliness. Solitude is kind of the opposite of loneliness. Solitude is when you are content with yourself. Solitude is not that easy to achieve. You achieve solitude actually by being in conversation when you’re young. Ideally when you’re young, with someone who leaves you a little space for your own thoughts. Gradually, you become more at peace with being with your own thoughts. You can think back to a grandfather who took you on walks, and who just gradually held your hand, and didn’t chat with you much. You each were in your own mind, but he was there. My grandmother used to take me for walks in Prospect Park, and we chatted a little but basically we looked at the pigeons, fed the pigeons. She taught me a kind of contentment in my own mind. That’s solitude. Being comfortable with your own inner dialogue.

That’s not loneliness. It’s interesting that we learn solitude by first being with someone else and comfortable with our own self when we’re with someone else. Let me get to your question, having defined solitude, of what it means, of why it is that solitude is the pathway to conversation and relationship. If you’re content with who you are, you can listen to another person and really hear what they have to say instead of needing to project what you need to hear onto a conversation with them.

We all shun people, and actually they are technically, they’re called narcissistic personality disorder people, but we don’t need to have that name for them. We technically want to stay away from people. We instinctively want to stay away from people who don’t know who they are, and want us to somehow tell them who they are. We’re comfortable with people who know who they are and who can listen to us and be in relationship with us because they let us be who we are. That’s what you want to achieve to be in a relationship. That’s what you’re looking for in conversation.

The pathway toward relationship passes through a capacity for solitude. That’s why I get into, I don’t want to say fights, but there’s a misunderstanding of my work. Not just my work, but of this very important point, by people who say, “Okay, let’s give Turkle this. That it’s good to be, maybe not it’s good to take out your phone when you’re with another person, let’s grant her that. But what’s the trouble with taking out my phone if I’m alone? I mean, what does that hurt? Why would that bother Sherry Turkle? What’s her problem with that?”

The reason that it’s a problem is because if you don’t develop the capacity, if you are always looking to be stimulated and can’t be alone, you will always be looking for somebody else to tell you who you are, to stimulate you. You won’t be able to develop this capacity for solitude. As a matter of fact, there’s an incredible new study that showed that after six minutes, people without a device who were just asked to sit quietly without a device or a book, begin to give themselves electro-shock rather than just be willing to sit alone without a device. That’s where it comes to. That’s pretty amazing.

Brett McKay: It sounds like the phone makes us other directed. I guess it was Riesman that I talked about it in the Lonely Crowd.

Sherry Turkle: Yes. Riesman.

Brett McKay: Riesman, yeah.

Sherry Turkle: Absolutely. Other directed. I would say other directed to a higher power. Other directed to a degree that he never would have been able to anticipate.

Brett McKay: He wrote that fifty year, like in the 1950’s, so sixty years ago, so…

Sherry Turkle: Yes.

Brett McKay: Didn’t think about the internet. Professor Turkle, before we head out, I’d love for you just to leave some action points. I always like to end podcasts this way, but anything that people can do today to reclaim conversation in their own lives, besides the solitude thing. I think we’ve figured out the importance of solitude and the nuance of your argument there. Anything else that people can do to reclaim conversation?

Sherry Turkle: Absolutely. I don’t believe in people spending so many hours doing this, or so many hours doing this, but I do believe in spaces. In your car, no devices. No texting for you. You’re driving, and no devices for anyone else in the car. The car is a sacred space for conversation. If people in your family complain, or friends, you just say, you know it’s really important that I talk to you and the car is really a great place for that. In our family, this is how it works. Try not to wait until your child is fifteen or sixteen years old to explain this. If you explain this to a relatively young child that this is just how your family culture is, they will accept it. They’ll be okay with that. That’s the first thing. Sacred spaces.

Then at work. Sacred spaces at work. No matter what level you are in your organization, the same designing the conversation in the workplace has to be part of how we think about work going forward. Getting rid of this idea that the pilot in the cockpit is working. Is the best way of working. That that’s the person who’s really accomplishing stuff. That would go a tremendous way toward reclaiming conversation. Just getting that out of our minds.

I just gave a talk the other day and somebody stood up and he says after listening to me, he says “But isn’t it really … Don’t you get the most done when you just have your earphones on and you’re just at your screen and doing your email?” I just looked at him and I said, “No. No, that’s not when you get the most done. All the research is showing that isn’t when you get the most done.”

The third thing would be to get rid of multi-tasking. We’ve kidded ourselves long enough. We all know that multi-tasking is interfering not only with conversation, it’s interfering with productivity. It’s inhibiting us really from knowing ourselves and from knowing what we think. We are distracting ourselves and really uni-tasking is the next big thing. Conversation is a human way to practice uni-tasking. That’s another big thing.

My favorite is like author’s choice, my favorite line in my book is that conversation … That technology makes us forget what we know about life. That father who is texting and doing his emails when he’s giving his daughter a bath. He knows. He knows that he’s doing something that isn’t good for his child, and he’s doing it anyway. Accept your vulnerabilities and design around them, and conversation is there to reclaim along with a better relationship to each other and to politics and to the world.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Professor Turkle, where can people find out more about the book?

Sherry Turkle: At

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Professor Turkle, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Sherry Turkle: My pleasure.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Sherry Turkle. She’s the author of the book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” and you can find that on and book stores everywhere. Go check it out. Fantastic book.

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy this podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you would give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher and help us get some feedback on how we can improve the show as well as get the word out about the podcast to others.

As always, I appreciate your continued support of the podcast. Thank you so much. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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