Two weeks ago in this space, I excitedly told you about my pending trip to Ireland with my sister. My report: We hit it hard, Dublin-to-Derry and back again, in a whirlwind of six days, two hotels, myriad historical, literary and music landmarks, several memorable dinners and drinks, and wonderful encounters with beautiful Irish people in beautiful Irish pubs and parks. Amazing.
But for all the world traveling and sightseeing, my highlight of the week was, not entirely surprisingly, the holistic healing feeling that came with spending uninterrupted time with my sis. It’d been years since we’d had solid one-on-one time together, and our first morning in Dublin, with the Liffey River, Trinity College and the Temple Bar district beckoning, we sat in the hotel coffee shop and, instead of sticking to the schedule we’d mapped out, talked. For three hours.
We were in Ireland, after all, a nation bursting with blarney and the good “craic,” the Gaelic word used most often in greeting (“How’s the craic?” i.e. “What’s happening?”) and defined by Wikipedia as “a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation.”
We reconnected. We talked, listened, gave, took. We caught up on each other’s lives, families, jobs, America, the world and lamented the crass times we’re living through. That was just the first morning, and the conversation kept going from there. We talked as we walked, bused, taxied, ate and drank, and without a doubt were duly inspired by the Irish’s way with words, trilling and traveling as they do from the heart to the tip of the tongue and spilling out like little songs.
It seemed like a dream to cherish then and even more so now that I’m back in the USA and back to the nonstop stream of communication via email, texts, tweets and social media. From here our odyssey seems even more fantastical and once-in-a-lifetime: There we were, chatting and catching up and getting closer, all the while recognizing the gift we’d been given in the rare chance to live out Mark Twain’s words of “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”
At some point in Dublin, it occurred to me that most of my communication with friends and family are via email, text and the quick-hit monologues of social media and shouted conversations over bands at bars, which made me recall something my friend and fellow writer/author Quinton Skinner wisely wrote on, ahem, Twitter: “My growing apprehension that my life had greater cohesion before the iPhone makes me… unexcited about the latest and buzziest version.”
I feel you, Mr. Skinner. “Greater cohesion” is a good way to describe my fading memory of pre-Internet me, and while I’m not exactly anti-technology, I’m here to say that a good long conversation will set you straight and make you feel whole in a way that, duh, a screen can’t. I don’t do it enough, but I know people who take long walks, runs or bike rides with a friend, or have regular coffee/dinner dates with a regular friend, which makes a ritual out of the back-and-forth volley that is good conversation and for some of the most “cohesive” people I know.
“We’re talking all the time. We text and post and chat. We may even begin to feel more at home in the world of our screens,” writes Sherry Turkle in her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” “Among family and friends, colleagues and lovers, we turn to our phones instead of each other. We readily admit we would rather send an electronic message or mail than commit to a face-to-face meeting or a telephone call.
“This new mediated life has gotten us into trouble. Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.”
Turkle is the author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” and a psychologist and professor studying the relationship between humans and machines at MIT, but it doesn’t take a sociologist to recognize that our over-connectivity has led to a shallower version of human relationship. In his just-published book “The Lost Art of Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life,” the Zen Buddhist monk and author Sakyong Mipham writes, “Great artists use painting, sculpting, or music as their medium for bringing imagination into the world. Likewise, by opening up a conversation with another person, our inspiration has a channel to express itself. It is an art because it transmits feeling. Art brings beauty and meaning into our lives. Beauty in a sense of totality, or wholeness.
“It has been said that a dark age is characterized by mass amnesia, in which our consciousness thickens and we forget our art. Then, after a while, we even forget what has been lost. Because language is one of the most subtle and sophisticated aspects of humanity, we must practice the art of good conversation. Simply put, if we don’t use it, we will lose it, devolving back into more primal states of being.”
Use it or lose it. How not to? I love it, live for it, and it’s probably why I interview people for a living. As such, my tips for good conversation (yes, it’s come to this) would be (and I’m also talking to myself, here): Make a phone call. Set up a date (awkward but worth it). Open yourself up. Ask how the other person is doing. Listen. Recognize and cherish the moment and bond. Don’t gossip. Ask/answer questions. Banter. Crack each other up. Be honest. Laugh your asses off. Brainstorm together. Be easy and languid, but don’t let the conversation die. Talk about your lives, hopes, dreams, fears, interests; walk away feeling cohesive.
There’s nothing like it, really. “The world has never felt colder to me, and I need warm things in my life, warmth and foundational things,” I found myself telling my brother over a beer the other night, as we attempted to recapture Ireland’s pub vibe at Merlin’s Rest on East Lake Street, where dozens of folks were joined in the art of conversation over dinner. Delicious.
We sat there for two hours, and it felt like just a start, and I can’t recommend it highly enough as a tool towards optimism going forward in this volatile world, where real-time one-on-one conversations can help you feel sane and inspired.
Do it, and do it again. Because if you do, you might get a shot of that aforementioned much-needed warmth, the kind my sister delivered a few days after we’d parted ways. She was on to her next adventure and I was on to mine, but the good craic and conversations had made us a good team and so she stopped in the middle of whatever she was doing and took the time to, yes, text her little brother:
“I miss you!”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]