Can we talk?

February 6, 2022

Reaching once again into the archives of my memory, I have borrowed a phrase from the late, great comedienne, Joan Rivers, to introduce this Friday’s topic.

It appears, and we have known for quite a while, that we no longer really talk to one another. “Talk” meaning the use of words which come forth through the use of tongue and tonsils, and said words are received by the ears and brain of another member of our species. Talk used to be termed as cheap; now it is rare, and perhaps even dangerous. But let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when even a Western law enforcement official (a lone Texas Ranger) spoke with and to a Native American named Tonto. This is indeed a reach, but it seems to me that if those two individuals could talk to one another, certainly we 21st century humans could do the same.

Instead, we have chosen to communicate via a myriad of electronic devices, the most popular of which is the mobile or cell telephone. This device allows us to “talk” without the use of voice or facial expression, and more importantly sans immediate feedback from the other party. Its occasional use among friends and acquaintances is one thing, but between family members at home or in public is quite another. I, and I trust you too, have observed a family of four, let’s say, at a table at one of our many eateries exercising their thumbs while dining, and uttering not a word to any other member of their seated family. I have watched this phenomenon with amazement over a 90-minute period when words were exchanged only with the restaurant staff person. Parent spoke not to parent, child spoke not to parent, and child spoke not to the other child. For the record, and to complete the circle, neither parent spoke to either child. This does not always occur, I suspect, but the instances are frequent enough to be noted and questioned.

One wonders whether these wonderful people whom we assume love and cherish one another verbally interact at home. My onsite research skills (and fear) did not permit me to inquire of the families I have observed over the past 10 years what means of communication was in use in the household. When I did have the opportunity to chat with middle and high school students about the mode and frequency of chatter at home among the inhabitants, I did learn from about 50% of those teenagers that actual audible words were rarely used even at home. Now that was certainly a head-scratcher!

To extend this topic a bit further, let us examine briefly (for now) our verbal relationships with non-family members. Can we talk to the person we meet at the coffee shop or the gym or at church, or do we even try? It appears that we have become extremely protective of our thoughts and ideas, wherein any opposing points of view are a direct strike at us personally, rather than intellectually. We tend, then, to react with our emotions rather than our devotion to a given issue or statement. Electronic feedback to a given issue or thought is much more convenient and certainly safer, thus we have taken advantage of the medium, and our palms and thumbs. However, missing is that verbal feedback to the other speaker or listener, which is essential for a meaningful human experience. We need to be brave and speak up, without speaking out; sharing and listening, devoid of screaming and yelling. It can be done. Merely a simple matter of respect for the other person involved in the conversation, and moreover, respect for the process of verbal interaction itself. We should be mindful of the danger of closing off the beautiful action of conducting verbal intercourse with those about whom we care, and more importantly with those with whom there may be a new opportunity for caring.

It appears that as we maneuver through these challenging times of right and left, our discourse needs to be increased rather than the reverse thereof. There is never a requirement for agreement, only a need and a request for hearing that other point of view. Surely it is fine to text one another, but perhaps not when proximity makes such a communiqué unnecessary. Certainly, care and courtesy must be observed as we navigate the verbal superhighway in the same manner that we operate our motorized vehicles along Routes 1, 16 and 24.

  • Peter E. Carter is a former public school administrator who has served communities in three states as a principal, and district and county superintendent, for 35-plus years. He is a board member for Delaware Botanic Gardens and Cape Henlopen Educational Foundation, and the author of a dual autobiography, “A Black First…the Blackness Continues.”

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