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The Art of Conversation

By Alison Henry

Posted: Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2009

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Photo by LGray Photography

In "Miles From the Aisle," former CB editor Alison Henry takes you on an irreverent trip down the often rocky road of relationships. She can be reached at alisonghenry@gmail.com.

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Twenty-five percent of my phone bill is text messaging. That’s an extra $15 every month to essentially not talk to people on a device created for talking to people. My reliance on texting stems from my aversion to actual phone conversation, and has even led me to fruitlessly negotiate with my cell phone carrier for a plan with fewer minutes: “But ma’am, you already have our smallest plan. The 200-minute plan is only available to senior citizens, and you’ll still have to pay for the unlimited texts.”

Yes, but can you not eliminate the talk feature altogether and just charge me the $15 entry fee for the thumb Olympics?

I have long been a torchbearer for face-to-face conversation, and in the absence of facial cues and body language, my phone calls are infested with interruptions and squirmy silences that often lead me to pull what my friends have affectionately dubbed the “Hey-I-Gotta-Go.” One minute we’re talking, the next, I’m out. Those who know me best have learned to just roll with it – and poke fun at me later – but as a single woman learning to stand on her own two feet, perhaps it was time I also learned the art of conversation.

Given my penchant for personal contact, I had always been opposed to modes of communication such as texting or online chatting. But when the in-person was impossible, texting and online chatting quickly became my conversational methods of choice. They were my own little veritable safety zones, free from the fears of the dreaded phone call.

But soon, preference turned into problem. I had traded my phone anxieties for a whole set of new ones, fueled by the fact that my friendships were now rooted in cyberspace, rather than reality. These conversations lacked authenticity and spontaneity, and left far too much up to interpretation. A whole new set of rules governed the give-and-take, and I began to once again long for the sound of someone’s voice rather than the pecking of keys. Relief came when a friend in Raleigh refused to respond to anything I sent him via text message. I was forced to face my greatest foe and pick up the phone.

Sure there were lots of silences, a palpable absence of contrived wit, and plenty of teasing (mainly at my expense), but that’s the beauty of human interaction. It’s messy and it’s imperfect, but best of all, it’s real. I soon found my friendship with my Raleigh buddy growing on a much more relatable level, and I challenged myself to continue the trend with my other friends. I started responding to texts with phone calls and set aside time – and my apprehension – for lengthier conversations.

Texting and online chatting are fun and convenient, but when it comes to building and maintaining real relationships, the only connection made through your Internet service provider is the one between the World Wide Web and your computer. Even in the absence of physical contact, there is no substitute for the simplicity of speech.

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