(TNS)—The teenagers that Robert Duran spotted at the local pizza parlor were gathered around a table on a Friday night, but they weren’t talking or joking; they were staring down at their cellphones.
Duran, a communications professor at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., says that he often arrives at a class to find 20 students silently texting in the dark — they’re so busy with their phones that they haven’t even bothered to turn on the lights. And when he holds office hours, fewer students drop by for a little one-on-one conversation, advice or mentoring.
“Students seem to have difficulty just engaging in a face-to-face interaction—and I don’t even mean normal eye contact. I mean engaging in an exchange,” Duran says. “There are some fundamental skills they just don’t have.”
At a time when digital technology is increasingly allowing Americans—young and old—to bypass actual conversation, some experts worry that we’re losing valuable communication skills, or failing to acquire them in the first place.
MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” wants conversation to become a higher priority. Professors such as Duran and employers, too, say they’ve already seen evidence of declining skills in the classroom and the workplace.
The good news is that conversation is a practical skill that can be explained, practiced and acquired, experts say. And those who make the effort can reap a wide range of rewards—richer personal relationships, more interesting interactions, better job performance and less stress at parties and work events.
“It’s not rocket science, and it’s not something that’s outdated,” says Margaret Shepherd, author of “The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace.” “I’m not necessarily against all the new ways to communicate, but I feel I have to speak up and advocate, yes, (communicating) face to face and out loud, and following certain rules of conversation is really still worth the time.”
Shepherd breaks the conversation into three basic parts: the greeting, the talk and the finish.
The greeting is fairly simple: “Hi, I’m Alison. Nice to meet you,” or, if you’ve met before, “Good to see you,” or “Nice to see you again.” With a new acquaintance you can follow up with a question about the other person’s hobbies or with a reference to a current event that he or she is likely to have heard of.
Don’t wait for the perfect icebreaker to occur to you, says Debra Fine, author of “Beyond Texting: The Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers.” You can just say hello and ask a genuine question: “Great shoes. Where did you get them?” If inspiration fails, Shepherd suggests a bright take on an old favorite, such as, “Can you believe this weather?”
A conversation is a volley, Fine says, so it’s good to be prepared with a simple one-sentence answer to questions such as “How are you?” and “How was your trip?” Instead of saying just “OK” or “Fine,” you might say, “Good, I finally managed to get a run in this morning” or “OK, I read a good murder mystery on the plane.” This gives the other person something to respond to (“Really? I run,” or “Do you like John Grisham?”)
When meeting new people, try to avoid negative pronouncements, moping and self-pity, Shepherd says. And don’t get too personal too fast.
Shepherd likes to see an initial conversation proceed from pleasantries (“Haven’t I seen you at my kid’s soccer games?”) to an exchange of facts (“Yes, I’ve been coaching for three years.”) to an exchange of opinions about the facts (“It’s great that everyone gets a chance to play.”). If you’re so inclined, you can then go on to share your feelings about the facts (“I was upset to hear that they’re having competitive tryouts next year.”).
Shepherd was recently at a dinner party with a woman who kept on saying how tired she was, an unexplained feeling and a conversational nonstarter. But when Shepherd asked the woman what she does, she learned that the woman was teaching at both Harvard and Stanford—at the same time—and making the bicoastal commute two times a week. That was interesting information, and good fodder for a conversation about the nuts and bolts of the commute, why the woman signed on for it and what she teaches.
When you’re ready to end a conversation, you can give the person a hint that you will be moving on, Fine says: “It’s been great hearing about your trip,” or “It’s been great talking to you.”
Shepherd says there’s nothing wrong with a direct approach: “I’ve got to let you go” or “I have to talk to a couple more people.” At a cocktail party, 10 minutes is plenty of time to spend with someone you genuinely like, Shepherd says, and you can avoid awkwardness by taking the initiative when a conversation is reaching its natural conclusion.
“Probably (the other person) is feeling the same way,” Shepherd says.
Here are tips for better conversation, from Debra Fine, author of “Beyond Texting: The Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers.”
Dig deeper. “How are you?” is more of a greeting than a real question, so if you really want to know, ask a second question: “How was your weekend?” “How’s the new project going?”
Try a compliment. Genuine praise puts people at ease.
Play the game. Information fuels conversation, so if someone asks a question, disclose something the other person can work with.
Ask open-ended questions. Bypass questions that are likely to elicit one-word answers, such as “Did you have a good vacation?” Try open-ended questions, such as “What did you do on vacation?”
Look around. A diploma on the wall, a cat bed on the floor or a photo on the desk can be good fodder for conversation.
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