I did something a little different for my “media” diary. Rather than track what “goes into my head” via digital media, I tracked what goes into my head — and out of it — via non-digital conversation.
Why would I do such a thing?
- I’m really interested in exploring the work conversation does to unite us, teach us, and help us co-create knowledge and understanding, now that it’s so easy for people to speak and be heard.
- I’m convinced that journalists could gain a lot from guiding and even leading public conversations around the news wherever they happen — as could society at large.
- And as for my focus on tracking my non-digital, rather than digital, conversation: Sometimes a cool way to learn what something is is to look at what it isn’t. Digital conversation gets criticized — hastily, I think — for being less immersive, building less empathy, etc., than non-digital conversation. To the extent that’s true, what can we do to bring more of the strengths of in-person conversation to the digital world? Taking a close look at our own conversations might help us figure that out.
So here’s what I did, and what I learned:
Tracking non-digital “conversations”
Here’s one of the 9 sheets I used to track, by hand, each and every non-digital conversation I had over three days
For the purposes of my tracking, I defined a “conversation” as an exchange among myself and at least one other person in which we all use our actual voices to speak. So in-person and telephone conversations are in, but tweets and emails are out.
For each and every separate conversation I documented over the waking hours of three days (Feb. 11, Feb. 12 and Feb. 15), I tracked a bunch of stuff:
- duration (in minutes)
- whether we talked to each other in person or not (y/n)
- whether the conversation was specifically scheduled (y/n)
- how well I know the other participants (0-5, with 0 = not at all and 5 = they’re family)
- whether I knew the participant’s names
And these are key:
- how immersed I was in the conversation (0-5, with 0 = barely paying attention and 5 = nothing else matters)
- how much I felt the conversation built on the relationship between myself and whoever I was speaking to (0-5, with 0 = not at all and 5 = hugely bonded)
- how much I enjoyed the conversation (0-5, with 0 = not at all and 5 = tremendously)
- how much enduring knowledge I got from the conversation (0-5, with 0 = none and 5 = tons)
I collected information on 169 separate conversations.
And here’s what I got, by the numbers…
Most of my conversations were under 5 minutes long. The longest conversations happened while people were sitting still: a meeting over coffee, another over lunch, a dinner with friends, and catching up with my husband at the end of the day.
- 42 percent of the time I was awake, I was in conversation
- The average conversation lasted 6.6 minutes
- Half my conversations clocked in at under a minute, while only 10 percent lasted 30 minutes or more. Those shorter conversations went by fast, though: They accounted for just 0.3 percent of the total time I spent in conversation
- 1 of every 10 of my conversations were with strangers whose names I didn’t know (waiters, cashiers, etc.). But they, too, were quick, making up just 0.7 percent of my total conversation time
- I spent 516 minutes — 44 percent of my total conversation time — talking to just the three members of my immediate family: my husband, my 3-year-old son, and my baby daughter. Unsurprisingly, a third of my conversations took place at home.
- All but 12 of these non-digital conversations happened in person. Eleven were phone conversations, and one was an online podcast interview
CONVERSATION AT WORK
I was extra curious about the three scales on which I measured the work my conversations were doing — relationship building, enjoyment, and knowledge building — and to what extent they were related to a conversation’s duration, or how immersed I felt I was in each one.
These were subjective, self-reported scales, and fairly uncalibrated. But just for fun, here’s the lowdown:
- I spent 70 percent of my conversation time in discussions I really enjoyed, in 37 exchanges I rated a 4 or 5 on the enjoyment scale
- I spent 15 percent of my conversation time in discussions that significantly built on my relationships, in just five exchanges I rated a 4 or 5 on the relationship scale, all of whom I also rated a 4 or 5 on enjoyment
- I spent 24 percent of my conversation time in discussions where I felt I learned a significant amount, rated 4 or 5 on the knowledge building scale. Only six conversations met this high bar — and five of these six were also rated 5 on the enjoyment scale
- For reference: On average, I rated my conversations a 2.6 on immersion, a 1.6 on relationship building, a 2.5 on enjoyment and a 0.4 on knowledge building
Now for the fun part. Did longer conversations correlate with higher grades on these scales? How about conversations in which I felt more immersed in the conversation itself, with less preoccupying or distracting me?
Here are a few charts to illustrate an answer to those questions. I claim no statistical significance here, but you can see some trends — especially when you compare immersion with enjoyment…
Just from a walking-around-in-my-own-body standpoint, there’s no question to me, having done this, that I get more out of conversations when I’m able to focus on them, and on the people I’m talking to. That’s really hard, though, and the rewards of great conversations are more rare than I realized.
I do a lot of other things while I talk to people. Walking around, taking notes, eating, looking something up on my phone … Many of my conversations fit in the transitional periods between other activities.
But many of my most enjoyable, longest lasting and knowledge building conversations stayed still somehow. A lunch with a student who inspires me. A one-hour reading lesson with my son. A family dinner at my best friend’s place.
Here’s another interesting tidbit: Of the 169 conversations I tracked over these three days, 15 had been formally scheduled to happen (coffee meetings, a lunch, an interview, etc.). Those I rated, on average, 4.1 on immersion, 2.9 on relationship building, 4.2 on enjoyment and 2.5 on knowledge building — far higher than the total conversation averages listed above.
The attention economy, indeed…