Can Conversation Really Happen in the 21st Century? First Reflections on “Reclaiming Conversation” by Sherry Turkle

So, my argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation. -Sherry Turkle

I was at a restaurant this evening, working on final revisions for my upcoming book while waiting for take out, as I noticed a group of five seniors nearby. They were just finishing up dinner, and now sat around their table, chatting. One of them, a woman, started sharing a story about a car accident she had that apparently wasn’t her fault. “The brakes didn’t work.” One of her friends asked her if she contacted the automobile manufacturer. “No, my insurance company didn’t want me to bother. They just wrote a check for the repairs.”

This story, more elaborate than what I share here, continued on with much laughter and more questions. All eyes and ears were on the speaker. There was not one smartphone sitting on the table. They concluded their evening with a round of hugs and making informal plans for their next chance to meet. “That story is so good, I bet someone would pay you to tell it!” remarked one of the friends. “We’ll have to just keep on talking over the phone until we can meet again,” lamented another.

This observation of a conversation could be described as normal. Except it is not. What seems to be normal now is a family or a group at a restaurant or the kitchen table, with a fork in one hand and a mobile device in the other. Conversations can never run deep if people’s attentions are divided between who they are with and who they are not.

9781594205552_ReclaimingConversation_JKF.inddThis is the topic of the new book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (Penguin, 2015). Her previous contributions, such as Life on a Screen and Alone Together, identified both the benefits and the drawbacks of our connections online. In her newest entry, Turkle tackles the challenges of always being “on” and offers advice for making ourselves more present for those most important to us.


These days, we want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to wherever else we want to be, because what we value most is control over where we put our attention. Our manners have evolved to accommodate our new priorities. (pg. 19)

The last sentence should really give us pause (it did for me). Technology’s pull is influencing how we act as people and social beings. We thrive on connections, yet have a hard time prioritizing the most important ones. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ll check my social media notifications a dozen times a day, even while I am writing. It gets to the point where I actually turn off the wireless while writing, or leaving my smartphone at home when running errands.

This isn’t happening strictly in public/social settings. Schools are also experiencing a sense of dividedness regarding attention. Students’ smartphones being confiscated because they went off during class is almost becoming a rite of passage. I can attest: As a former assistant principal, I had one drawer in my desk designated for holding these devices until parents came to school to pick them up. Teachers often see smartphones as distractions, and not always because they are “trying to teach”.

In the classroom, conversations carry more than details of a subject; teachers are there to help students learn how to ask questions and be dissatisfied with easy answers. More than this, conversations with a good teacher communicate that learning isn’t all about the answers. It’s about what the answers mean. (8)

So why does this fairly new phenomena occur? One reason is when someone receives a notification or a message on their phone, it triggers the reward center in their brains. That’s why people leave their phones out in sight. However, as Turkle notes, studies show that the mere presence of a phone on the table changes what people talk about (21). Others worry that their conversations might get interrupted, so they keep discussions at the surface level. Also, dealing with people means giving up control of the conversation and what we might want to say. “Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding” (21).

As I read on in Reclaiming Conversation, I hope to gain new knowledge in how to navigate my own connected life a little better, as well as to guide my kids and those that I learn with regularly. By the way, no one has it figured out. Not even the five seniors at the restaurant. As they were leaving, one of them wanted to show her friends a funny commercial she watched on television. She pulled out her smartphone while standing at the front doors of the restaurant, opened YouTube, and played the commercial on her screen with two friends – while others were seated at tables. We all have something to learn.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

7 thoughts on “Can Conversation Really Happen in the 21st Century? First Reflections on “Reclaiming Conversation” by Sherry Turkle”

  1. This is definitely a dilemma and I guess people need to figure out what works for them. Making a judgement about the engagement, or not, of others is difficult when you don’t see the rest of the picture. I like the fact that the seniors you mentioned placed their attention on each other and their conversation while at dinner. However, without the final anecdote it may have seemed they had shunned modern technology and had simply stayed in the past. That one took out a smartphone to share a Youtube video shows that they are living with technology but they balance it with time for each other. I think it’s a good balance. (Perhaps because it is similar to what I do!)
    When I am catching up with family or friends I put my phone or my iPad away and enjoy the conversation. But sometimes I want to share something I have seen or information I have found out and doing so using technology is interesting and efficient, so will get out my device to do so. On the other hand, when I am out with my husband, with whom ongoing conversation is plentiful, we may each refer to our device for notifications or games. It doesn’t detract from our depth of conversation at other times, in fact what we see or do on our devices may add to it.
    I look forward to finding out what further inspiration you get from Turkle.


    1. Good point Norah. Sometimes our connections can bring us closer together. I had a similar experience, at a previous restaurant visit with my wife. It was senior prom night, and we knew two of the seniors at a neighboring table. We got out our phones and tried to figure out which hashtag they were using on Instagram to highlight the night. Couldn’t find anything…they were probably using Snapchat. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing, Matt! This looks like one of those books that will not only make it to my list, but that I’ll read sooner than later (you know how those lists go…). I’ll be sure to curate carefully when and how I respond though. : )

    Liked by 1 person

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