We’ve all encountered “that book,” the one that takes you on a tour of a world you never knew existed or touches you in a way that changes your life a bit, hopefully for the better.

Reclaiming Conversation – the Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (Penguin Random House © 2015) was “that book” for me. Although the title sounds less than scintillating, it was a New York Times best seller, and I discovered why as I read it.

Sherry Turkle, a social scientist, psychologist, and educator, focuses on digital communication and how it affects the way we relate to each other. Turkle’s research, about how adults and children now use digital technology for every part of their lives, was eye-opening. An enthusiastic proponent of technology at one time, she raises concerns that perhaps we have gone too far. And then she shows us what “too far” looks like — and we are already there.

One Chair

 Solitude, Self-Reflection

She discusses levels of communication using chairs as a metaphor. One chair relates to our periods of solitude and self-reflection. Apparently, thousands use their cell phones to avoid solitude. They label it “boredom” and look to their phones for constant stimulation.

She writes, “It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent…This means you can listen to them and hear what they have to say. This makes the capacity for solitude essential to the development of empathy.”

Middle school teachers reached out to Turkle because they noticed their students seemed to lack empathy for each other. They suspected it was because the children used cell phones to communicate, rather than talking face-to-face. For example, it is easy to email a nasty comment like “You’re fat!” to a classmate. It is another thing to say it to his face and see the pain the remark caused. We learn empathy by speaking with one another, not texting. But apparently, talking is out of style. People told Turkle  they were extremely uncomfortable with verbal, face-to-face conversations because they could not edit their words after they were spoken.

(This frightens me. I don’t want to live in a world where people are incapable of empathy, of respecting others’ feelings or beliefs. Are we there yet? I think “red” and “blue” mobs shouting at each other, and worse yet, death threats and vile comments to people simply doing their job and counting ballots, tell us we are.)

Two Chairs

Family Friendship Romance

Unless there is a “no phone” zone, people gather with their phones at the ready, even at the dinner table, lest they miss a message or cannot reach out digitally when bored. Parents are as guilty as their children. Turkle writes that some children go to desperate measures to get their parent’s undivided attention if only for a few minutes. Sadly, many have learned to live with what they can get and turn to AI for companionship — a caring robot. (How will these children relate to their children?)

One of the teens Turkle interviewed told her about the seven-minute rule. If engaged in a face-to-face conversation that does not become interesting in seven minutes, she will turn to her phone.  Then there is the young adult protocol when dining out together. It is okay to message, text, or surf when others are conversing, if there are at least three people at a time involved in the conversation. Thus, people move in and out of the table discussion. (Makes me wonder about the quality of that conversation.)

Furthermore, I had no idea people prefer to “court” each other digitally. For them, it is safer because they can edit what they say and avoid spontaneous verbal blunders.  Ironically, they now fear being misunderstood because of a punctuation error or misplacement —an exclamation point implies something different than a period. Some couples even prefer to argue digitally so they will have a record of who said what.

Three Chairs

Education and Work 

Turkle wrote of professionals, businesspeople, even lawyers, who hide their conversation anxiety behind digital communication. Editing is safer than speaking. This way, they present the persona they want others to see and not their real selves. Older physicians noticed their younger colleagues would rather study their patients ‘digitally stored medical tests and history than have an actual conversation with a live patient

She writes that now office workers sit isolated in their cubicles, working or gaming digitally. If they need an answer from a co-worker, they will email the question, rather than walk to the neighboring cubicle, pop their head in, and ask.

Business meetings are no barrier to texting, messaging, surfing, or even gaming online either—even for the person leading the meeting!  If it is not searching for information to add to the subject at hand, it is the “heaven forbid I should be bored” factor.

To promote face-to-face conversation among his employees, one CEO ordered all employees to stop first at the 15th floor when they arrive at work. There, a table with coffee and assorted goodies greets them.  This is his way to promote mingling and “live “conversation.

(Just this week I witnessed an example of a young person who was totally unprepared to engage in the simplest person to person business interaction. As I sat in the dentist’s waiting room, a mother and teen-aged daughter entered. Both wore masks, and the daughter was clutching her cell phone. The mother said she would wait for her in the car. She indicated to her daughter that she should approach the receptionist by herself. The girl walked warily to the counter and looked back to her mom.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said.

The receptionist smiled and said, “Tell me you name.” After checking in, the girl took a seat and focused on her phone.

At her age, perhaps 16, none of my Boomer friends would have had any problem presenting themselves for an appointment. Good for mom that she did not step in to “help,” but I found it sad and troubling. If not for Turkle’s book, I would not have noticed.)

Going Forward

Turkle presented many examples of humans turning to artificial intelligence for companionship, for assurance of never being rejected, even for guaranteed empathy. “Caring robots” help elderly with physical needs, baby sit youngsters, take the form of lovable pets (that never poop). Proponents say these tasks, for which it is often hard to find enough workers, frees people to pursue “human” endeavors.

(Isn’t physically caring for others and animals something humans do? I found it telling that one boy Turkle interviewed had no problem relating to an AI friend, and really did not care of it was human or not.)


Reclaiming Conversation, written in a conversational style, held my interest to the end. Sherry Turkle warns us that, unless we are careful, we could lose some of our humanity in a digital age run amok. Will we be wise enough to know where and when to hold the line?

Her book is available throughout the Monroe County Library system and also at Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Reclaiming-Conversation-Power-Talk-Digital/dp/0143109790/ref=sr_1_1?crid=21QSI3ETSSI1E&dchild=1&keywords=reclaiming+conversation+sherry+turkle&qid=1607609147&s=books&sprefix=Reclaiming+Conversation%2Caps%2C175&sr=1-1 .