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With email, tweets and Facebook posts dominating our exchanges, what happened to good, old-fashioned talking?

With email, 280-character tweets and quick Facebook posts dominating our daily exchanges, what happened to good, old-fashioned talking?

india Updated: Jun 04, 2018 15:01 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
conversation,social media,online
More people are communicating with known and unknown people today than in the past, say researchers. But has this online discourse enriched the traditional wayside and drawing room conversations?(Anushree Fadnavis/Hindustan Times)

“…And Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who, with some of the Lucases and two or three officers, joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.
Mr. Darcy stood near them in silent indignation at such a mode of passing the evening, to the exclusion of all conversation…”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

The year was 1989-90. A young Amit Chaudhuri met fellow student Peter McDonald at Oxford and both unhappy where they were, discovered an intellectual kinship through conversations. Years later, Chaudhuri, now an author, would acknowledge the importance of such a kinship by dedicating one of his books to Peter and other conversations.

Cut to 2018, and one of the first things that Google throws up if you type conversations is the link to an instant messaging app.

It’s the stuff nostalgia is made of. Letter writing, diaries and journals, and to an extent, conversations – not the kind exchanged over social media platforms, but those that were, and sometimes continue to be, shared in the intimate and cosy space of one’s drawing room, college canteens, dormitories and common rooms, the neighbourhood tea stall and sometimes between strangers, in the unlikeliest of places, the lurching compartment of a train or at a bus stop.

Much has been written on the impact of the obsession with the virtual world on one’s real life relationships. The effect of sms/WhatsApp language on the writing skills of the youth has also been debated. But is the increased dependence on email, instant messages and 280-character social media posts, punctuated with emoticons, taking a toll on our skills of verbal exchange?

There can hardly be a simple yes or no answer, but a good look at those around us would indicate that the possibility of it happening is not remote. The paradox, as Gita Bamezai, head, department of communication research, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, points out, is that more people are conversing “with known and unknown people today than ever before, if we go by the number of Facebook users and Twitterati.” But she questions whether this online discourse has enriched the wayside, tea stall and drawing room conversations. “In many ways our face to face conversations have become prone to technological disruption,” she says.

Coffee & Conversations

The Bengalis call it adda, the French, tete-a-tete (though technically that is a private conversation only between two people). In Urdu it is guftagoo. But it all boils down to the same thing – a verbal exchange between people that is so much more than just plain communication. It could be high-brow or mundane or flirtatious, depending on one’s mood and company. And though singer Manna Dey’s Coffee House er shei adda ta aaj aar nei (the conversations at the Coffee House are no more) immortalises, at least for the Bengalis, the charm of the Calcutta Coffee House – the once-upon-a-time haunt of many city intellectuals–for Indians tea has traditionally been the drink over which conversations buzzed.

It is in search of this that 28-year-old Delhi-based journalist Malini Das (name changed on request) rushes to meet her friends every evening after work. “My companions are a motley group of people from across professions. There is a wide age range and we talk about everything, the possibilities are limitless. It is the quintessential Bangali adda that I had grown up seeing and hearing around me in Kolkata,” she says. But even as she lets tea and talk unwind her after the workday, she is aware that conversations around her are slowly being lost in silence. “Today, only 10 per cent of my friends still converse regularly. In my parents’ time, the figure would have been 90 per cent,” she rues.

To Speak Or Not To Speak

In the 1970s-80s India, without the lure of a 200-channel offering cable television at home or the wonders of the world wide web at one’s fingertips, entertainment mostly meant socialising with one’s friends. Conversations were still as central to the gatherings as when Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. “At festivals, or even otherwise, we would visit people more than we do now. And there would be a lot of conversations,” agrees Delhi-based author and translator Saba Mahmood Bashir. Films like Gol Maal (the original 1979 one starring Amol Palekar and not the modern Ajay Devgn-starrer franchisee), which show friends meeting to converse or indulge in music to while away the time, capture this perfectly.

“There always used to be that one person who could talk well – who was full of stories and a treat to listen to. It could be the roadside chaiwalla. And every town had that space that would act as the meeting place and encourage conversations – in Kolkata, for example, it was the para or neighbourhood. In Jamshedpur, it was the puliya or culvert, where people would converge for conversations,” says filmmaker Imtiaz Ali. Years later, glimpses of these people, the good conversationalists, surface in many of his films. They are there in Geet, the chatterbox protagonist of Jab We Met, and the autorickshaw driver in Tamasha.

The Bengalis call it adda, the French, tete-a-tete (though technically that is a private conversation only between two people). In Urdu it is guftagoo. But it all boils down to the same thing – a verbal exchange between people that is so much more than just plain communication. It could be high-brow or mundane or flirtatious, depending on one’s mood and company (Anushree Fadnavis/Hindustan Times)

In a December 2017 article in The Gaurdian, Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction in the UK, listed words and phrases that she felt had the power to turn the course of a conversation. She and her colleagues had analysed hours of recorded conversations, from customer services, mediation hotlines and police crisis negotiation. ‘‘We are pushed and pulled around by language far more than we realise,” Stoke had been quoted as saying in the article.

As author-parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor had stressed in a tweet in response to those who have routinely accused of using difficult language in his social media posts, “The purpose of speaking or writing is to communicate w/ (with) precision. I choose my words because they are the best ones for the idea i want to convey, not the most obscure or rodomontade ones!” His posts are such a far cry from the usual emoticons, ‘omgs’ ‘lols’ and ‘duhs’ that pass for communication in online discourses, that it is hardly surprising that Tharoor’s choice of words draw the attention they do.

Books and article have been written on ways of carrying on a meaningful conversation or help readers hone their skills of conversing in a way to make the best possible impression on their listeners. There are classes to teach one correct diction and pronunciation. But for Amit Chaudhuri, it is the nature of the conversation which is of primary importance.

Watch What You Say

The dictionary defines conversation as “a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged”. But Chaudhuri categorises it into three kinds. “The first is insular, clubby. It is a kind of networking conversation among members of a clique. There is very little scope for intellectual stimulation here. The second is when two people who may not even know each other are drawn together in conversation because of their shared angularity and in the process get to discover each other. My conversations with Peter were of this nature,” says Chaudhuri. He adds, “Then there is the overheard conversation, whose sound alone brings a fullness to everyday life.” Unfortunately, today it is the first kind of conversation that dominates, says the author. In the past, conversation – or more particularly the informal adda – had, he feels, a kind of innocence and adventure about it. “It was eclectic and would chart a huge range of subjects, from the mundane to the intellectual, which you don’t have too much of in conversations today,” he says.

A degree of dissension is required, feels poet-writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar. People can’t be agreeing to each other all the time. At times, one or the other person may have to assume a different point of view for the sake of discourse. But, the poet adds that this can’t be done if there is a mood of intolerance. One has to be tolerant of different viewpoints in a conversation, he feels.

Also, one has to be a good listener, point outs author Jerry Pinto. “And when I say listening I don’t just mean waiting in silence for the other person to stop speaking though that is rare enough – I mean actively trying to incorporate the other person’s point of view into one’s own world view. This is an act of empathy which should be at the heart of all conversation.” But, adds Pinto, “social media, by making us putative stars of a small universe, has taught us not to listen”.

The essence of all conversations is to communicate and share, agrees Bamzai. “But the emphasis today is less on sharing and more about seeing the self as the star,” she says.

It started with globalisation, feels Chaudhuri. “Globalisation changed social values and legitimised self promotion. Social media had the potential to change that by creating a space where one could be more irreverent. But that didn’t happen. Rather, it added to that same kind of discourse,” he says.

The proof is there on everyone’s social media timelines – selfies of spectacular holidays, details of lunches, dinners and coffee dates, of one’s own and one’s children’s achievements – the obsession with the self is probably at an all time high..

The Neosocial

A 1935 painting by artist Arnold Lakhovsky shows a group of men sitting together. Their expressions suggest they are talking. The work is titled The Conversation. A similarly titled 2017 book, Conversations, by art director, illustrator, and designer Nicholas Blechman and illustrator-graphic artist Christoph Niemann is, however, based on a four-month communication between the two, during which they exchanged drawings and photos using their smartphones. According to Niemann’s website, there was no verbal communication between them.

Bashir - who also teaches at the Jamia Millia Islami university in Delhi - and her husband Amir, organise an open-for-all conversation at their house every month, where people meet to discuss books. “At times, youngsters who attend surprise us with their views and how well they can express themselves, once the conversation catches their interest,” she says. But adds that it is becoming increasingly common for her colleagues and students to communicate over email and message, rather than talking in person or over the phone.

Das gives the example of a friend who is extremely articulate over email and in non-verbal communications, but fumbles to make himself understood while talking.

Much has been written on the impact of the obsession with the virtual world on one’s real life relationships. The effect of sms/WhatsApp language on the writing skills of the youth has also been debated. But is the increased dependence on email, instant messages and 280-character social media posts, punctuated with emoticons, taking a toll on our skills of verbal exchange? (Photo: Images Bazaar)

In many ways, social media has taken over the place of the nukkad tea stalls or para, where people would meet to converse, says Ali, but adds, that for him nothing beats the charm of a face-to-face chat. “When you are conversing with someone in person, the spoken words are only about 25 per cent of the communication – 75 per cent is what you see, the person’s gestures and expressions,” he says. In a virtual exchange, gestures and expressions are replaced by emoticons. Not everyone is, however, happy with the liberal use of emojis. “It is like the message comes with a rider. You are told how to interpret it,” says Chaudhuri. And there is the moralising. “Adda was never about morality. But social media promotes moralism,” says Chaudhuri. Bamezai agrees. “Conversations on social media turf are at times like slinging matches or a boxing arena which have nothing high-brow about them,” she says.

Of course, social media is not the sole disrupter of the leisurely conversations of the past. “Our lifestyles have changed so much. Our parents would usually be back from work by six in the evening and have the entire evening to socialise,” points out Bashir. That is hardly the case for most professionals today, as competitive work lives ensure office time blends into after-hour work from home.

For those alive to the charms of an informal verbal conversation, the engagement can be as addictive as uploading selfies on social media seem to be for most people today. Prantik (name changed on request), one of Das’s regular conversation companions, says he can miss work, but not his daily dose of conversation. His claim seems, however, more of a wish than reality. Das admits that one or the other of them often don’t make it, owing to other commitments. The only constant member of the group today is probably the low wall of the neighbourhood market where they meet – the silent host and participant in their many discourses.

First Published: Jun 02, 2018 18:34 IST