As part of this residency we’re doing, we were trying to think of places where you encounter people potentially quite different to you, in a context where you share some kind of need and are thus brought into dialogue.
One of the places I thought of was dating apps. Everyone involved is looking for love/ sex/ a partner. While some sites have algorithms that use sets of questions to determine a match % with potential partners, on others your starting point is a picture. From this picture (and an idea of match % on some apps) you progress to text-conversation. I spoke to a few friends who’ve used these apps and most people said that it was normal to communicate like this up to the point of meeting - so not speaking on the phone or Skype etc. Just by text.
When you’re talking to someone face to face, you’re getting three types of information from them - the words they are saying, the tone of their voice and any facial or bodily expressions they make. In computer-mediated communication, these second two are stripped out: all you have is the words. We’ve probably all (or the neurotic amongst us) had a moment where we’ve received a message and worried that we’ve somehow pissed the person on the other end off because what they’ve written sounds really mad - and then asked for clarification and found that the lack of tone was the problem and all is cool.
But talking to my friends about their experiences with dating apps showed another way that the lack of visual and verbal cues affects the conversations. ‘I’m more honest by text’ said one of them, 'I present my brain and thoughts on life in a much less filtered way, so they get a real sense of me.’ Why do you think this is, I asked; my friend replied that ’talking’ like this, you can’t perceive judgement.
There’s lots of research that suggests that people will be more honest with machines - in sexual health clinics they’ll tell a machine that they’ve had more sexual partners than they would tell a human receptionist. In the UK, the Samaritans report that although only 20% of telephone callers report suicidal feelings, but this number increases to around 50% of email contacts.
Talking to another person via computer is different to talking to a machine but I wonder if there’s something in not being able to see the flash of disapproval or even disgust cross the other person’s face. Another friend told me about a guy she was chatting to who said he was turned on by extremely hairy women. As she was relating the story I could feel myself making a face. ‘Exactly, right?!’ she said. ‘But he couldn’t see me making that face, and I had time before I responded, so I could explain politely that that wasn’t me.’
Time before I responded. A moment of pausing and considering what the other person had said before leaping in with an instinctive or knee-jerk reaction. Difficult face to face but very possible if your communication is mediated by a computer. Actually, so what if the guy likes extremely hairy women? Why do my friend (and I) find that gross? Maybe it’s not her bag but he’s gonna find someone out there whose bag it is, and good luck to them.
Someone tells me another story. Quite a way into their conversation, a guy she has been chatting to says he fantasises about sex with young girls. Post-pubescent but definitely underage young girls. He’d never done anything about this - these were fantasies. She continued the conversation -unlike if it had taken place in a bar- because the time lag that digital communication afforded enabled her to process the information - and because he couldn’t see the look on her face. ‘I had time to treat him like a human being.’ The guy had fantasies. He hadn’t acted on them.
And, my friend argued, it’s when we stop talking about this stuff that it goes underground and terrible things happen.
This is perhaps quite an extreme example of how the pause that digital communication affords can enable someone to maintain dialogue with someone else who holds different and quite difficult-to-stomach beliefs. I started thinking about 'the pause’. I remembered reading I’d done around Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2; the central thesis of his book Thinking Fast and Slow is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: "System 1" is fast, instinctive and emotional; "System 2" is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. (This is super-reductive and I need to go back and read it all). But I wondered if ‘the pause’ allows you transition from an emotional response (superhairy > ‘gross’) to a more reasoned one.
I started wondering about how you might introduce ‘the pause’ in a conversation about politics, for example, to allow a progression beyond Leavers = ignorant racists (the emotional response) to questions around what motivated people to arrive at the decision they arrived at (the more deliberative approach). Do it online and replicate the dating response time lag? Sure, but it’s hard enough to get people with different political opinions in the same physical space, let alone online. How could it happen face to face?
#1 Find yourself in conversation with someone ideally who you don’t know so well already.
#2 Talk to discover where you each come from politically, and what differences you might have (to be celebrated).
#3 Ask each other questions, but you only need answer the questions that make you go ‘that’s a good question’.
I’m really interested in the set-up. Initially, as answerer, you’re not actually thinking about your answers. Your attention is on the question because you need to figure out whether it gets a ‘that’s a good question’ sticker. You’re listening, in an active way, to what the other person saying, to see what it gives you pause. And I wonder if that moment, of putting the mental ‘that’s a good question’ sticker on the question, gives you the pause that enables the transition from emotional response to something more reflective.
How else can this happen?