How the smartphone killed conversation

When you get a phone call these days the first assumption may well be that it is a wrong number or a rogue pocket dial, a shift with significant implications for brands.

How the smartphone killed conversation

Conversation is a dying art. For those of us who grew up in a time without smartphones the language of love was often learned on the telephone.

Privacy extended only as far as a telephone wire would reach beyond the prying ears of parents. The easy intimacy afforded by talking on the phone, of endless long conversations about nothing which somehow meant everything were part of the fabric of daily life.

Fast-forward to today and prying parents are afforded no such luxury as the art of conversation is increasingly mediated through a myriad of social apps. Dark social cannot be overheard and communication, while constant, is increasingly devoid of intimacy.

Despite the fact that conversation is in decline the language of conversational marketing is in full flourish. The irony is that while any given inanimate object wants to have a "relationship" and a "conversation" with consumers’ who are eschewing having a conversation on the phone altogether.

The share of device owners saying they make at least one voice call a week has dropped down from 96% to 75% over the past three years, according to research carried out by Ipsos Mori for Deloitte.

The end of conversation: what it means for brands


1. Mind the empathy gap

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, believes over-reliance on devices is harming our ability to have valuable face to face connections.

In essence people’s increased inability to give anything or any one person their full attention is diminishing our capacity for empathy.

2. Mind your mobile manners

According to a study from the Pew Research Centre  the "always on" reality has disrupted long-standing social norms about when it is appropriate for people to shift their attention away from their physical conversations and interactions with others towards digital encounters with people and information that are enabled by their mobile phone.

77% of all adults think it is generally ok for people to use their cellphones while walking down the street and 75% believe it is ok for others to use phones on public transit. But only 38% think it is generally ok for others to use cellphones at restaurants and just 5% think it is generally ok to use a cellphone at a meeting.

Jo Allison, editor at Canvas8, says that while talking on the phone may be declining a new wave of constant conversation is upon us.

She explains, "We’re seeing the rise of group chats via instant messaging and that creates an entirely new set of group dynamics and behaviours.

"In many ways, it’s a never ending conversation, where a record is kept of everything that is said. Voice and physical cues may be missing but the participants express themselves in different ways, such as through memes, gifs and images."

3. Lost in translation

Some believe the reliance on text-based conversation is creating an environment in which both brands and consumers are talking at crossed purposes. According to Turkle people feel that digital media puts them in a comfort zone where they can share "just the right amount" of themselves.

She explains, "this is the Goldilocks effect. Texting and email make people feel in control, but when they talk in detail about their online exchanges, the stories are usually about misunderstanding and crossed signals. The feelings of control are just that - feelings."

4. The myth of multitasking

If we have a device in our hands we want to multitask, but, according to Turkle this is simply pursuing an illusion.

Turkle says, "When we think we are multitasking we are actually moving quickly from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix.

"Multitasking gives us a neurochemical high so we think we are doing better and better when actually we are doing worse and worse."

The fact that the device which promised consumers greater control, the smartphone, is in fact delivering less, should provide pause for thought to marketers.

5. Mobile anxiety

A growing tranche of research suggests an increasing unease among consumers over their relationships with their smartphones. Research from Canvas8 found 61% of Brits wish they could disconnect sometimes, and 26% think about it daily.

Many want to disconnect when they’re socialising to focus on the physical conversation going on in front of them – and want their friends to do the same. While research from the University of Michigan found that kids want their parents to put down the smartphones at the dinner table. And twice as many children as parents expressed concerns about family members over sharing personal information on social media.