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Conversation

by on February 21, 2021

Conversation

by Marco M. Pardi

The reason we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and speak the less.” Zeno. 300 BCE

A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years’ study of books.” Chinese saying.

All comments are greatly appreciated and will receive a reply. All previous posts are also open for comment.

Conversation. What a marvelous word. Implicit in the word is an exchange between or among two or more sentient beings. You may talk to your car on a freezing cold morning, but you do not get a response in kind unless you provide it. And, your passenger may utter a statement which brooks no exchange: “Hurry up and start the damned thing!” Of course, the well trained might then say, “Yes, dear” while responding further only in thought.

Latin has long been considered the most efficient of the Western languages and, as we learned with our declensions, we could state Person, Voice, Tense, and other modifiers within one spoken morpheme. But as our technology developed ways of remotely conveying our words to others many began to feel something was missing. As late as the 1970’s, long after the invention and wide distribution of the telephone and the two way radio, popular literature began carrying claims that as much as 80% of meaning was lost when conversations did not occur face to face. Then arose the much mythologized “science” of body language. Of course, card players, salesmen, politicians, preachers, and con artists had long perfected the detection of “tells” and even the ability to convey false or misleading information non-verbally. To see the breadth of its application we need only to look at video of the last presidential administration. But in general, body language means nothing unless one has first established a baseline of a person’s behavior; one is looking for deviations, not just presentations.

Now that commonly available technology allows us to Face Time, on those ubiquitous phones, and Zoom, which has largely replaced older video meeting technology, it is fair to ask if we have gained anything in the process and, if so, what. And now that the Covid-19 virus has caused whole communities to go into rolling lockdowns, schools to continue only in virtual form, restaurants to survive only through curbside or window delivery, and people to mask most of their faces in public, what are we missing?

I’ve never been “one of the guys”, a man who joins other men in week-end night card games and beer parties. I dislike cards (have no idea how to play) and I don’t drink. But I do know of ongoing Bridge games and get-togethers of various kinds. I imagine the masked balls are seeing an increase in Whaddya say? and other such muffled pronouncements. And I’m looking for an increase in the sales of flexible drinking straws, to be slipped under masks. But, amusements aside, what intangibles are there in conversation which are eluding us now, and what if any long term effect will they incur? On a couple of on-line chatgroups I observe I’ve noticed recent statements to the effect that people, albeit masked, are more giving in their casual comments to service personnel they encounter, such as clerks in grocery stores. That’s reassuring. But is it enough? Does being restricted to the kiddie end of the pool make us yearn for the deep end, the intense and involved conversations that sometimes went on for hours?

More people have turned to on-line chats using such options as ZOOM and other audio-visual technology. Is talking to a screen satisfying? During the last four plus years I talked to the tv screen often. But even now, with people able to respond in real time, it still seems like talking to a two dimensional image. You could be in the next room or on the next continent and there would be no real connection. I can’t hand you something; I have to hold it just right for the camera to capture it and send only a flat image of it. Is this what we’ve come to? This must be what it’s like to spend months on the Space Station, conversing with loved ones over an electronic connection. And breaking that connection seems so sudden. Good bye…click.

I’ve always disliked going to parties. People mill around mumbling and jabbering about uninteresting stuff, listening to others only to detect a pause into which they can pitch their important little contribution. To me, the most interesting parts of the conversations were how the participants entered into and how they left those conversations. What was said in between was usually just exhaust gas. Entry and exit tactics convey a huge amount of cultural information to an observer. They would provide for a post of its own.

But then there are those people who only see certain verbal exchanges through a very limited lens. The Central Intelligence Agency was formed and chartered to gather, collate, and analyze information which was then passed to policy makers for them to determine action, if any. That is, it was an intelligence agency. But most people interpret that as meaning it was a recipient of targeted information only and not a producer of targeted information, not an influencer. In fact, since its inception it has been a skillful and successful influencer, targeting socio-political systems not with bullets but with words.

That balance changed under the Reagan Administration when Reagan installed William Casey as Director of CIA. Casey, a veteran of the WWII O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services), was direct action oriented, experienced in inserting saboteurs and other specialists behind enemy lines, often using recruits native to the country into which they were inserted. Because opportunities like that were uncommon during the Cold War Casey instead concentrated on recruiting former and even current military into what became a para-military arm of the CIA, employing them as in-country or nearby advisors and other support personnel. This had a troubled start during Casey’s attempt to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but the recruitment continued long after Casey’s departure. Sooner or later this emphasis would lead to more serious trouble.

The rise of al Qaeda (“the base”) brought a different kind of combatant onto the field: The religious militant. By that time the CIA had recruited a substantial cadre of personnel who were ex-military only in the sense that they had put their uniforms aside, not their mindset. As hostile engagements intensified the agency began funding bounties for captives, resulting in a flood of prisoners, many with little or no connection to, or even interest in al Qaeda. But the paramilitary operators saw them all only as “hostiles”. Refusing to believe these costly prisoners had no secrets to divulge, the operators resorted to ever more severe methods of interrogation. To paraphrase an old saying, To those who are hammers, everyone else is a nail. The CIA had hired too many hammers.

The military has long had the SERE program: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. The Resistance portion teaches how to resist severe interrogation techniques. And, the Army produced the US Army Field Manual on Interrogation, FM34-52, a 177 page manual which clearly delineates legal techniques, forbids torture and explains why torture is counter productive. But an Army psychologist reverse engineered the Resistance portion of the SERE program to devise torture tactics, several of which crossed the line of international agreements on torture. Yet, these won widespread acceptance within the paramilitary section of the CIA, already avid fans of the nonsensical television series 24. What the CIA did not understand was that these new prisoners were not combatants in the traditional sense; they were believers anxious to spread their ideas of truth and, in the process, often willing to divulge information about associates and plans.

In response to the quickly exposed torture at the hands of the CIA al-Qaeda produced its own manual, oddly named the “Manchester Manual”, which recognized that sooner or later everyone breaks. Al-Qaeda taught its members: Everyone who falls into American custody will be tortured; breaking under torture is understandable, even expected; one must hold out for 48 hours during which their absence would be recognized and the 48 hours would provide enough time to change or cancel any operational plans the captive might then give away. Thus, “stale” intelligence would lead the US into wild goose chases and possibly traps.

In the early days of armed contact the first interrogators meeting with “high value detainees” were skilled and experienced FBI Special Agents. The Bureau had received authority to operate in any and all countries that would formally accept them. In many cases of interrogation their efforts met with immediate and surprising success, without any evidence of or reason to believe coercive measures were used. Instead, a cup of coffee and a cigarette enabled the participants to enter into a conversation which often went on for hours, even days. No towels and buckets of water were used to induce the feeling of drowning. Volumes of important intelligence were collected.

All that changed when the CIA entered and demanded custody of the detainees. The hammers came down and the detainees “clammed up”. Ironically, it quickly became obvious that the hammers did not realize something crucial: interrogation is for obtaining information, not for obtaining revenge. Furthermore, whatever information may have been forthcoming between near drowning events was already operationally obsolete. But the vengeance kept coming.

I like to think that examples like this increase generalized knowledge. Most of us, hopefully, will not be interrogating hostiles in our day to day lives. But every once in a while a stark reminder such as these events provide with moments to consider how we converse. I know a person who, in what seems to start as a normal conversation, asks questions. That’s great. But then she goes on to answer them while you are speaking. I’ve even stopped talking while she went on and saw she seemed satisfied with the answers she had devised for her own questions. It reminded me of flawed interrogations I’ve witnessed.

I’ve also tried to converse with people who mumble or drop their volume at points (William Casey was famous for this and it was easy to lose concentration in meetings as images of water boarding him came to mind). That makes me wonder if they understand the meaning of communication, as in commune, community, etc. Communication is more than just expressing yourself; it’s also about doing it in a way that ensures it is understood.

The world is a fascinating, ever changing kaleidoscope of stimulating and challenging features. Each of us sees it in our own unique way. Granting that we are unable to convey felt meaning, only to devise an intellectual report that we have a feeling, we can still converse, express ourselves, and begin to understand others and ourselves better through listening. When people have said I’m quiet I’ve always responded by pointing out that I learn more by listening than by speaking.

I opened this site as a forum for conversation. What do you feel like expressing?

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8 Comments
  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, two years of in-depth study into Autism Spectrum Disorder have revealed so much about the mystery of conversation for me, and I’m still discovering new aspects about myself daily.  I still have to remind myself to ask appropriate questions when meeting new people – one of the most difficult areas of conversation for me.  Where are you from?  What do you do?  

    Agonizing!  But over the years I’ve learned to mimic the script offered: If the person I meet asks certain questions of me, then I typically ask the same of them.  

    I basically have just two conversation settings:  Mute, and Meaningful.  I really have no in-between, and I’ve been called “bitchy” and “stand-offish” in new social situations for as long as I can recall.

    Like

  2. Thank you, Dana. I very much empathize with the Mute and Meaningful settings. I don’t quite know to what I should attribute that, but it’s there.

    Can’t imagine you being “bitchy” or “stand-offish”, much less called that. Sometimes I briefly wonder what people call me, but only briefly.

    Like

  3. From Mary Ann in Canada:

    Imagining future human communication and intelligence:
    A Conversation…”ever changing kaleidoscope”…
    Perhaps the current observed social behaviour of those involved with their digital devices, ignoring each other, (or being pandemically isolated) will ultimately be replaced with technologies that allow us a more complete interpersonal experience. Alternately, we may become more isolated through the anonymity of relying on artificial intelligence, as portrayed in the movies HER or SOLARIS. Eventually “Al” in the movie HER became bored with its human interaction and went elsewhere for stimulation. In THE OCTOPUS IN LOVE we are introduced to the idea of distributed sensory capability and resulting distributed intelligence (GPS chips, cameras in cell phones). So maybe the future of “Al” is not based on a central computer, but a distributed set of sensory contacts and computation, described as cloud computing. I imagine this form of technology becoming the nervous system and knowledge system of humanity. The idea behind a whole society controlled by an ever-increasing presence of artificial intelligence seems quite plausible — and easy to understand why an apocalyptic scenario of the future could be possible. Hopefully instead it will be used to enhance human existence and communication, as we are already engaged with Apple’s Suri, Google’s search function, the use of GPS in cars……..

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  4. Thank you, Mary Ann. It seems you are projecting an evolution into Hive Mentality, certainly the bane of people who imagine themselves to be individuals. But you strike at a very fundamental chord: our very ability, and proclivity, for communication suggests we may already be Hive and unaware of it.

    Like

  5. From Ray in Canada:

    “The silver cloud to this pandemic is that it forces to innovate in so many ways. I’m hoping to continue cursive shopping once the virus has been conquered, for example. When it was clear I couldn’t mount my stage play this year I wrote an online version. I’m waiting for a better platform to run music jams now…maybe that will come with better internet speed. And I sense people being kinder in general with each other because we have to be….but that is more about attitude to cope with the isolation.

    I find myself exercising more, cooking and preparing healthier meals…and safer than eating out which is where I have typically gotten sick…germs and viruses jump at you when you consider all the hands your restaurant food passes.through. Working at home is the future and we need to do more home manufacturing… altering zoning codes for example to reduce all that commuting to a job.

    Aside from the concern of picking up the virus from somewhere, I think there are more positives than negatives about the transition we’ve gone through… we need to celebrate that phase of our life…”

    Like

  6. Thank you, Ray. Because I know you to be unusually aware, I’m heartened by your positive attitude toward what could be a major shift in our social orientation. I remember the discussions as early as the 1960’s about the coming difficulties of dealing with increased leisure time. Your projections are right in line with what seems an undeniable restructuring of the employment future.

    Like

  7. Steve permalink

    I think face to face communication is vital. Zoom and Facetime are a great convenience and easily the best substitute we have for distances, but they hardly compare. I have experienced the same 2D disparity you reference in your piece.

    I believe I was modestly successful in helping our son relearn the language and become more sociable; but, in the process I became less practiced at being sociable myself (when I already needed work in that area). Despite my awkwardness, I miss maskless, in person conversation free from the fear that I’m putting individuals at risk because we have children attending school in person and my wife attending work in person and I could be an unknowing carrier. That said, returning to in person learning has made an immense difference in our daughter’s mental frame of mind.

    I also have to say I really miss seeing everyone’s full faces, smiles and expressions on a daily basis even though I understand why I cannot see them.

    I do share Ray’s optimism about the positive effects working from home could bring. However, routine intermittent face to face meetings would still go a long way in creating a greater bond with employees. The in person conversations I value so much from the jobs I’ve worked happened over time and exposure to my fellow employees often during quieter periods likely not readily available in a Zoom scenario. I know there has always been a gulf between local employees and remote employees at my wife’s company that has only widened during the pandemic.

    Like

    • Thanks, Steve. You provide several precise points well worth pursuing further. Of course, we are limited by the pandemic. But it will be interesting to see the outcome, if there is one.

      I’m glad your efforts with your son are successful. You are an exceptional parent.

      Like

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