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Terence Blacker

Terence Blacker: Don't confuse talk with genuine conversation


The landline telephone rings only occasionally these days and more often than not, when it does, it brings a call-centre hustle of some kind. Yet every day passes in a blur of sustained, staccato communication with the outside world: can you do this? Have you seen that? Nudge, link, like, follow.

The rhythm of online correspondence provides an easy sort of company, and can sometimes – not always – make life more convenient, but there is a price to be paid for speed and efficiency. We are losing the art of conversation.

In a perceptive New York Times article, Professor Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has argued that there is growing confusion between communicating online – "the silence of connection", as she calls it – and conversing in real life. "People are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people – carefully kept at bay," she writes. "We are tempted to think that our little 'sips' on online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don't." Talk, in other words, is not to be confused with its cousins in cyberspace, chat, shout and mutter. It may be messy and old-fashioned, it will certainly carry the risk of anger, confusion, hurt and boredom, but it grows more important for the health of heart and mind as we become more hooked on connection.

The online friendship of familiars and strangers is largely an illusion. It can be shaped to our individual needs, deleted and blocked. An extension and validation of self, it is but one small step away from being kept company by a computer with a programme to please. Real talk to real people, in contrast, cannot be kept at bay with a click of the finger. Feelings and ideas, in all their contradictoriness and complexity, need to be expressed in words, tone of voice and facial expressions rather than being tapped out in text, tweet or email, with symbols representing emotions.

The problem is that chat does not merely compete with conversation; it erodes it. We are becoming so used to connection – accelerated, superficial and brief – that encountering arguments or states of feeling which are complicated, as life tends to be, can be a shock to the system. Online life is one of polarities: you like or you don't, and then you move on. There is no room for nuance.

That approach infects real life. Feelings that are tricky to express lose out to online equivalents which can be denoted with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign.

Because conversation provides real emotion and thought, rather than a quick and easy imitation of those things, it needs to be protected from this process of degradation. Perhaps it should be a breach of etiquette if someone talks to you, mobile in hand, in the manner of someone whose mind, eye or finger is only partly with you, but mostly connected to his virtual friends.

Any serious meeting should start with a request to turn off all mobile phones. It should be regarded as poor form when out walking with a friend or alone to allow real conversation or solitude to be interrupted by hurried texts or calls.

Connection should be put in its place, and kept away from conversation. We should learn to differentiate between a real talk on the telephone and the quick practical call ("Don't forget the milk!", "May be late!", "Love you!") which is often nothing more than a human version of a troupe of chimps keeping in touch with one another in the jungle.

Real conversation is important for our sanity and our happiness. An excess of online chat will make us lonelier, less kind to one another, more supine and self-obsessed. In both the personal and the political worlds, any argument which requires mental effort and flexibility, a recognition that there is sometimes no obvious right or wrong, will lose out to simple, time-efficient stupidity.

The best of human thought and feeling risks getting lost in the roaring silence of connection.

Dysfunctional female characters may not be such a blow for equality

Another classy, slow-burn thriller is now on our TV screens. It is a Swedish-Danish production called The Bridge and its leading character is a successful, attractive female detective with a disastrous private life.

What a surprise that is. Thrillers may be obliged to stick to the rules of their genre, but this latest cliché, while flying under feminist colours, represents something rather unattractive. Like those middle-class tabloids which are obsessed with the perceived unhappiness of women who combine having a family with a career, these series suggest that success for a woman brings emotional dysfunction in its wake.

What can explain this new obsession with the pretty but screwed-up female detective or spy? She first appeared in The Killing, then brought her emotional baggage to Homeland. Now, here she is again played by Sofia Helin, tough but tragic, brilliant but unable to find happiness, in The Bridge.

The argument will be made that there have been unhappy male detectives in the past, and that women are now being given the opportunity to be miserable, but I wonder if it is such a great step forward.