Can we talk, kids?

Dear readers, it’s time to talk. 

Because as much as I value the written word, I fear that we are craving voices. 

I recently joined a friend to listen to renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel discuss the challenges of connecting in the digital age. Perel argued that we have never been more accessible to each other. We spend virtually all-day exchanging emails and texts. But we don’t speak to others nearly as often; either in person, or on the phone. 

In other words, we are talking at each other, rather than with each other.

Like many of us, I actually now almost jump when my mobile phone rings. “Who could possibly be calling me?” I find myself thinking, equal parts shocked and irritated.

In contrast, when I was a teen girl, I’d rush to beat my sister to the telephone when it rang in our lounge room, thrilled that any moment another human would be on the other end of the line. What possibilities! “I’ll get it,” I’d yell as I ran towards a conversation. 

Research suggest that our digital natives, however, sprint away from the ring. In fact, studies have shown that 40% of young people report feeling anxious about the thought of having to take a call. There has even been a rise in articles teaching millennials the lost art of talking on the phone (advice includes, “speak loudly enough, and slowly enough, but not too slowly.”)

And yet we are born wired for sound. It’s why new parents attempt to bond with their babies by talking to them while they are still in the womb. It’s why we sing lullabies and read stories to children. 

So, if we are no longer engaging in conversations, then how are we quenching our innate thirst for the spoken word? 

Perhaps this explains the phenomenal rise in popularity of podcasts (tellingly,  some of my favourites allude to a mutual dialogue in their title – ABC Radio’s Conversations, and Perel’s Where should we begin?) and in Audiobooks, which are the fastest-growing sector of book publishing. 

Even clever tech companies are trying to get our devices to sound more life-like so that we will listen. 

Amazon are reportedly spending millions trying to make their virtual assistants sound less robotic, and more human-like. They are finding ways in which they can make them whisper, and they are trialing varying the volume, emphasis and pitch of their speech. Laura Wagner, a psycholinguist at Ohio State University, told science and technology site Wired, “We’re going to love (our VA) more if it sounds human.” 

It may explain too why organised travel groups are on the rise. Traditionally, a journey was an opportunity not just to sight-see, but to connect with new people. Weary travellers would meet at inns and share stories of their adventures. Now, hotels provide self-contained rooms; little boxes from which we order in, and watch TV alone. 

But what we are really missing out on may be more than just the face to face sharing of anecdotes, and the comfort of company.

A male friend who recently confessed that he too feels almost resentful when his mobile rings reflected that he had, however, fondly listened in as a young boy to his Dad when he was on the phone. “I find that in doing things I heard my father do when I do have to speak on my phone (such as making a reservation or call down for the car) I hear his voice in the register I drop into.” 

Ordinary moments that provide unexpected opportunities for reflection, and connection.

In my work with teenage girls, I’ve always known the young people I work with are most engaged when I share my personal stories with them. Yet I hadn’t realised how enduring my voice might be in their lives until recently. 

On the weekend, a young woman stopped me at the cafe she was working in and said, “You came to my school a few years ago. My friends and I still talk about that day! And this will sound really weird, but I have your voice in my head. Like, when I am not sure about something, I hear you talk me through it.” 

Would she have internalised my voice in quite the same way if she’d only ever read my books, or received an email from me?

It’s worth discussing.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph.