In the beginning, God uttered a few phrases and created the heavens and the earth—a testament to the power of the spoken word.
Oh, how things have changed.
The spoken word hasn’t lost its power, but it has lost much of its appeal.
Today, many of us seem reluctant to actually talk; we’re more likely to communicate by email, text, or social media post. Although these digital tools offer unprecedented opportunities for connection, they can’t provide the richness of real conversation.
“Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle wrote in Reclaiming Conversation. “Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”
And it’s where we can model Christlike behavior.
The challenges of 21st-century conversation
The gospel of John, rather than focus on Jesus’ miracles or parables, chronicles a series of his encounters with other people, like Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Jesus made conversation a priority.
“This stands in stark opposition to much of our culture, doesn’t it?” Ken Wytsma and A. J. Swoboda wrote in Redeeming How We Talk. “By and large, we do not have time to talk. Our lives have become cesspools of busyness. Words are exchanged at the minimum needed to keep our machines spinning, or they flood our ears at a rate we simply cannot manage. We rush off to be elsewhere with little to no time for real, relational conversation.”
The pandemic made things worse. More than three-fifths of people who participated in a survey in 2021 said that social distancing caused the art of conversation to decline, with nearly three-fourths saying masks made it more difficult to understand what people said.
Texting and email offer connection without the social cues of body language, eye contact, and tone of voice, making misunderstandings more likely. Video conferencing and phone calls, although better, still lack the intimacy and clarity of face-to-face conversation.
Social media inserts a different kind of distance into our interactions. Faceless people can hide behind their keyboards and say things they likely would never say to someone’s face. They don’t have to come to grips with their differences and find a way to coexist.
Turkle calls this an “ability to be ‘elsewhere’ at any point in time, to sidestep what is difficult, what is hard in a personal interaction.”
A Pew Research Center study in 2015 found that 89 percent of cellphone owners used their phone during their most recent social activity. Other research suggested that just the presence of a smartphone diminished the quality of a conversation.
Turkle told the American Psychological Association that children sometimes feel frustrated when they try to make eye contact with their parents because they are looking at their phones. She recommends creating sacred spaces like the dinner table where people put their phones away.
She bluntly said, “Phones diminish empathy.”
How to have good conversations
Yet Turkle also said, “We can enjoy and profit from mobile technology and not give up conversation. I would go further: This is what we have to learn how to do, because conversation is essential to our humanity—and to our creativity, our work, and our ability to be in families.”
Philosophers have been extolling the virtues of conversation for thousands of years. The Greek philosopher Socrates used dialogues to pursue the truth about life’s most fundamental questions. The give-and-take when we talk to each other helps open our minds to new ideas.
The early church considered Cicero, the Roman philosopher and statesman, a “virtuous pagan.” He set down these rules for good conversation, as summarized by The Economist:
- Speak clearly.
- Speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn.
- Do not interrupt.
- Be courteous.
- Deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones.
- Never criticize people behind their backs.
- Stick to subjects of general interest.
- Do not talk about yourself.
- Never lose your temper.
Interestingly, he also said, “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.”
The power of the word and the Word
Jesus was a great listener. He would ask questions to draw people out, then respond to what they had to say.
Many of the Jewish people eagerly awaited his words. His arrival ended a period called “The 400 Years of Silence” after the last prophets of the Old Testament when, as far as we know, God did not speak to his people.
Wytsma and Swoboda titled one of the chapters in their book “Jesus Speaks.” Not surprisingly, they quickly turned to the gospel of John, which describes Jesus as “the Word” become flesh.
“For when God wanted to speak to the world, His primary mode of communication was not a tweet or memo or message in a bottle,” they wrote. “God, in His ultimate form of communication, does not send words, but a Word—Himself. If God wanted us to merely have words on paper, Mary would have written a book, not have a baby.”
Jesus talked with everyone: the outcasts of his day, the tax collectors and prostitutes, and the rich and powerful. He didn’t avoid conversations with his enemies, as many of us do today; he embraced them.
When the Pharisees and chief priests sent temple guards to arrest Jesus at the Festival of Tabernacles, the guards returned empty-handed, and the religious leaders wanted to know why. The guards responded, “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46 NIV).
When Jesus asked his disciples if they wanted to leave him, Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68 NIV).
That’s how powerful the spoken word can be.