In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle invests a lot of ink in the distinction between connection and conversation. This is a distinction already rife with commentary, on this site and others, that while connection is the term of choice for LinkedIn partnerships and Facebook “friends,” it is bankrupt when it comes to the real subjectivity present in a conversation between two breathing people. Turkle argues that this transition away from conversation is, in turn, bankrupting us of the real meaning of connection. With the growth of internet communities, relationships are devoid of anything beyond petty self-fulfillment schemes.

I know, I know: heard it all before. Turkle gets at something, though, that stuck with me. She tells the story of Gretchen, a college student who has found herself in something of a tight spot with her roommate. She’s begun a relationship with her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, and now the ex-boyfriend has begun using Gretchen as a weapon against her roommate. Things are disintegrating quickly. Turkle tries to reach out:

When we speak Gretchen is distracted. Her grades are a disaster. I ask her if she wants to talk to someone in the counseling center. She says no, she needs to make things right with her roommate. What her roommate needs to hear, says Gretchen, is her apology and “the honest truth.” Gretchen adds, “That is what will restore my concentration.”

I ask Gretchen if she is comfortable going home now; it’s close to dinnertime and her roommate is probably at the dorm, no more than a ten-minute walk from my office. Gretchen looks confused as thought my question has no meaning. “I’m going to talk to her on Gchat,” she says. “I would never do this face-to-face. It’s too emotional.”

Turkle sees this as evidence of what she calls the ever-widening “empathy gap” in young people today, a gap that is creeping into older generations, too. To me, the empathy gap usually implies that someone has not been taught the virtue and benefits of empathy with another’s hardship. Gretchen, to the contrary, understands what she should do. She knows what will make her feel better. She knows the remedy to this terrible situation. But to go there, to do it, feels nearly impossible to her.

Why does “the honest truth” feel like an impossibility? Why, when it’s all that’s required (and all that will work!) to bring back a friend, does “I’m sorry” feel like such a death? It is so much easier to settle instead for what Turkle calls “an artificial truce.” A grad student she spoke with said this is the prime form of appeasement in her relationships:

The texted “I’m sorry” means, on the one hand, “I no longer want to have tension with you; let’s be okay,” and at the same time says, “I’m not going to be next to you while you go through your feelings; just let me know when our troubles are over.” When I have a fight with my boyfriend and the fight ends with an “I’m sorry” text, it is 100 percent certain that the specific fight will come back again. It hasn’t been resolved.

reclaiming-conversation-sideMany would argue that this shows us the damage text messaging is doing to our empathy barometers. Sure. It is undeniable that technology has provided us more justifiable maneuvers around the discomforts and liabilities of our relational lives. Just think about the last email that “got buried” in your inbox or the last text message you unintentionally “ghosted,” not because you had plans, but because you didn’t want to say “No, thanks.” In this same chapter, Turkle depicts our desktops as small cockpits, with numerous screens alit with incoming dangers and promising new discoveries. The alluring (and terrifying) extension being that we get to be the pilots, consciously and subconsciously shifting blame and pumping out more ego to keep our craft in flight. And that we’re doing that all by our lonesome, in the quiet blue light of our simulators.

There’s a reason it’s a resonant image. But I also tend to see Turkle’s image the older, darker way around: Not that the screen has made me think I’m a pilot, but that I’ve always wanted to flee. Technology only slicks the track for what humans, from time immemorial, have yearned to do—escape judgment alive. If I’m given the opportunity to see the pain I’ve caused, all the unspoken thoughtlessnesses I’ve snuck in on my loved ones, 99 times out of 100 I will take the easy way out. I will choose an artificial truce. (Which might make sense of many a church’s distaste for talk of atonement these days, mightn’t it?)

Thankfully, the gospel’s message is judgment escaped alive. Only then are we able to say, “I’m sorry.” And then maybe have a conversation.