Last summer, I worked with an organization called CanYouEngage, which helps political candidates from all parties to find, engage, and meaningfully work with young people in their ridings.
CanYouEngage is great. Right there in its name is the invitation, the question, so simple and so important: can you engage?
Lately, I’ve been wondering: can we engage? Any of us? It is easy to see division and resentment on social media and in politics. Is there any room for kindness and understanding and dialogue?
Can we engage with others who think differently from us? How?
Over the past month, two incidents left a bad taste in my mouth.
- I had dinner with someone who spoke non-stop for an hour and a half straight.
- Someone on Twitter sent tweet after tweet telling me why my recent articles were wrong.
In each case, it wasn’t even what each person was saying as much as their battering ram approach to communication. They were airing their thoughts, and my active participation was not required. Neither asked me any questions.
It is not fun to realize you’re not taking part in a conversation, you’re listening to a monologue.
Whether or not a person asks questions is one of the few ways to determine if they genuinely want to have a conversation. It is disheartening how few questions are asked, in life and on Twitter.
I’ve written before about the importance of listening. I try really hard to listen to those around me: my partner, my friends, my clients. There’s no other way to form real relationships.
This is the disappointment of social media: often, it doesn't live up to its name. It is meant to be social, yet too often it can be antisocial. In March, Microsoft created an AI chatbot named Tay. A mere 24 hours on Twitter were enough to turn it into a racist asshole.
I do know people who are whole-heartedly committed to online dialogue and try to engage meaningfully with others. On Facebook, I see some wonderful conversations on contentious topics, where people (mostly) manage to stay civil. I hear of cases like writer Lindy West, who reached out to the guy who was impersonating her dead father to abuse her. (It’s quite the story.)
I wish I saw things like this more often. But there’s a weakening of personal relationships online. Someone told me social media makes relationships “anemic.” It’s a great description; an interaction happens, but it’s weak. It’s missing something.
It is rarer and rarer that we use platforms to ask good questions or have meaningful conversations, but I think it is too simple to blame that on social media. As my dinner companion showed, an in-person interaction can fall just as flat as an online one.
Can we engage? How?
The only answer I have come up with is to ask questions. Ask good questions, to show the other person you are interested in them and so that you can learn something new.
But is that enough? If the other person isn't interested in asking questions, if all they want to do is get something off their chest, what do you do then? How should I have responded to the person detailing the reasons I was wrong? Is the best thing in such a situation to shut down and move on?
How do you engage? What are your ways of turning a conversation from a monologue into a dialogue? If you have ideas on building relationships through better conversations, I would love to hear them.