Have you noticed
that nowadays while people spend more time talking to each other, they have less to say? Could technology be at the root of
the problem? Is emotional isolation the defining spirit of our times? John Steinbeck
wrote that the curse of civilization is that modern man knows more about the workings of the internal combustion engine than
the workings of the clitoris. But evidence for social ills points to a breakdown in communication- and nowadays women are
at fault too.
doesn’t help much. While most people agree that what most brings people together is love, forgiveness and understanding,
that which separates them more than anything else is religion. Thomas Merton once asked, “Who has less to say than the
So more communication
is what we need. Sounds easy. But didn’t Neville Chamberlain try to communicate with Hitler at the Munich Pact? The
attempt obviously didn’t work. And so we face the question of not only whom we want to communicate with, but what we
wish to communicate. “Now Maine Can Talk to Florida” proclaimed the New York Times headlines
upon the completion of an interstate telegraph system. To which somebody asked the rhetorical question: “But Does Maine
Have Anything to Say to Florida?”
Have you ever
been talked at, instead of talked to? Someone tries to overpower you, dominating
the conversation with a monologue, a torrent of words so relentless, you can break in only when they pause for breath. If
you do manage to get a word in, they don’t pay attention because they are too focused on what they want to say next.
It’s hard work talking to these folks. A conversation is two or more people expressing and responding to each other’s
ideas. Something special happens when people take time, and give space to listen with full attention. And then speak to what
the other really said.
was once regarded as an art. The tradition of salons in France, tertullias in Spain,
the cafes and coffee houses of Europe, conversation was – and still is- a national
pastime for Europeans. They take time for the important things of life (which is why they have five and six weeks of vacation
time). In America, where pragmatism and
efficiency rule, communication is often seen as superfluous and “for informational purposes only.”
A few years
ago, a series of speakers addressed a college faculty group. After two hours
of boring, self-serving speeches, I joked to a colleague seated next to me, “They’re killing us.” She laughed, but I wondered if my blood pressure were indeed getting dangerously low. Not since high school
had I been so deathly bored. Then a woman took the podium. Just back from a hospital stay where she had been gravely ill,
she spoke from the heart about her gratitude for the visits and letters she had received from the faculty. I felt my attention
being drawn in spite of myself. I sat up. I noticed a crisp energy in the room. My head started to clear, and everyone was
now sitting upright. Her speech was neither brilliant nor clever, but it came out deep and sincere. The room had come alive.
When she finished, another speaker took the podium, at which time I felt myself descending back into the same low energy funk.
speech comes from the heart, which cannot be accessed when we wear masks, as we often must do, especially at work. I spoke
with my colleague about my observation afterwards and we agreed that some people are always in that special inner place when
they speak and listen, and as a result, their words have weight and resonance. The Gettysburg Address was one of the most
eloquent speeches in the English language, yet Edward Everett, who had also spoken at Gettysburg
that day, wrote that Lincoln had said in two minutes what
he had tried to say in two hours. With words, sometimes less is better.
me of a political speech at the Haverhill stadium in the early
1990’s. My stepdaughter was graduating from high school. The weather that June day was insufferably humid. People in
the stands were drenched in sweat. We endured five or six pompous, inflated speeches
as a prelude to the major event, which was to be another speech by Mayor Ted Pelosi. The stadium felt like a sauna. The mayor
finally got up to the podium. I looked at my watch. “My speech today is about…” and then he paused. “BREVITY!”
He laughed and then said with the most soulful sincerity, “Good luck kids… have a great life.” Then he turned
on his heels and walked off the stage. The audience paused, dumbfounded, and then erupted into a thundering applause. In that
moment the mayor had seen us not as objects of his mind, but as subjects of the heart- as human beings who were uncomfortable.
The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, wrote about this distinction in his treatise
on communication titled “I and Thou.”
Before we can
fix this country, we will have to learn once again how to talk to one another.