In this week’s column, history hunter Richard MacLeod seeks to understand why the ‘old pleasure’ seems to have disappeared
When was the last time you had an old fashioned conversation? Nor the one conducted via Facebook or e-mail, or a short conversation about the weather with a neighbor while he is rushing somewhere. I’m talking about a two-way exchange about something meaningful, community connection. I remember having so many quality interactions with people in my community just a few years ago.
I started thinking about this topic shortly after engaging in a good, old-fashioned conversation on Main Street and decided I wanted to do some more research. Is the community ‘chatter’ that was a big part of my youth running out?
Studies on whether the amount of face-to-face conversation falls are really inconclusive. But I believe the quality of our interaction in the community has most certainly taken a hit. It is clear that our habit of communicating via social media or email has promoted a general decline in our ability and ability to engage in ‘one-on-one’ exchanges.
Ironically, I am communicating with you online. My preferred form of communication about our history is through presentations or through my heritage walks, but certainly since COVID-19 my opportunities for face-to-face contact have declined. My presentations at Newmarket Public Library return this month, so I hope to be able to re-establish the personal connection I enjoy.
I also enjoy doing one-on-one oral history interviews. Man may not fully recognize how much of our heritage was originally captured in oral form and passed down through the generations from word to moon. The genius of local writer Ethel Trewhell recorded these oral stories and put them into print for us to enjoy today.
I often look back to the time when I was a child, learning about the history of my city from experts. Sitting with my elders, I would enjoy all the stories from the past, little biographies of those around me, gaining an understanding of where I fit into the world around me.
One of the regrets I hear most often from those I interview is the fact that they didn’t talk to their ancestors more.
I remember when I would leave the house, someone would engage me in conversation, asking how my family was doing and updating me on the news from our community of Niagara and Queen streets. Back then we were part of the neighborhood community and talked to each other.
A shopping trip with my mom or grandma was never just a run to get items and get home, but consisted of a leisurely stroll down Main Street or Newmarket Plaza. It seemed like we would spend hours talking to the dealers and fellow customers. We knew everyone and had our finger on the pulse of our community.
I didn’t fully understand the joy inherent in this experience, but now I longed for those days. It’s probably why I still head to the high street daily to ‘do the tour’, always stopping at my favorite watering holes like Soupa or Metropolis for a coffee and a bit of local conversation. Getting my hair done at Continental on Main was something I looked forward to every month. You went there to find out what was really going on in the city.
There are countless things that we can blame for the collapse of the conversation, and the bottom line is that we simply lack time. Newmarket is a flurry of neighborhoods and people, making the very idea of a good old-fashioned conversation seem like a relic from a bygone era.
However, it is too simple to say that modern life is taking us away from creating deep human connections. I am undoubtedly more connected today than I was in my youth, and yet I feel more isolated. Thanks to my elders, I was able to master the art of conversation and develop a natural interest in others. Today I often feel uneasy, my mind is understimulated.
I am often told that Newmarket was a very different place when I was young, the population was smaller and everyone knew their neighbours. I’m not convinced it’s about numbers.
I was at the mayor’s levee last week and there were tons of people. Some people I knew well, but most people were relative strangers. I watched accomplished communicators like our mayor and Jackie Playter establish rapport with everyone around them and I was instantly transported back to my youth when the skill of effective communication was far more prevalent. Today, when I meet these people, I am amazed, they are a return to the time of my mother and grandmother.
My grandfather, who was in the monument business for nearly 70 years, was dealing with his community at a dark time in their lives, yet he prided himself on his ability to speak openly. Back in the late 1960s, he warned me that there was a growing gap between the expression of personal feelings and what was said. He argued that we are losing the subtle nuances of body language, feeling and experience. Instead of engaging in the messy reality of conversation, many of us have stopped really listening. I should have listened to him back then.
Instead of impromptu conversations with people we meet on the street, shopping, or walking through our neighborhood, we seemed to turn to a world of online apps and highly curated messages to help form new connections. We don’t see them and they don’t see us, so these exchanges make it difficult to really connect.
Face-to-face interaction used to be the only option, so our brains got fired up about such conversations. Our brains are incredibly sensitive to changes in facial expressions and body language, so as we move towards phone, email and online communication, much has been lost.
Studies show that there has been a general decline in our communication skills. For example, children’s social skills decline as they prioritize virtual contact over face-to-face interaction. Studies also show that after just five days without looking at their digital screen, these same children were significantly better at reading human emotions, natural instincts began to re-emerge.
Further research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that conversation between adults and children between the ages of four and six changes the way children’s brains are formed and is crucial for language development.
There is also strong evidence that this reduced social contact negatively affects our mental health. A 2015 study found that people over 50 who met with friends and family three times a week were half as likely to suffer from depression as those who had only virtual contact.
Forming a deep connection with a community member, family member or close friend creates a chemical in the brain called ‘oxytocin’, commonly referred to as the love and connection chemical, which stays with us for the long term.
Whether at home or at work, with friends or family, it is very likely that we feel that we are not being heard. Knowing that others know how you feel, what’s important to you, and where you see yourself in this world is vital to all of us.
It became important to me to create more opportunities for conversation. I had to accept that it takes time to establish an effective conversation, I needed to actively set aside small amounts of time to talk with friends and colleagues.
In writing my weekly column, I found that I needed to be more curious about what others were thinking and feeling; ask them questions and then listen. I tend to question more, answer less. I had to remember that one of the most important gifts I can give someone is my attention. My oral history interview program turned out to be a goldmine of local history and all I had to do was tell me a little about myself.
In earlier articles I examined the concept of the high street. High streets are generally the gathering place of the community. High Street can be found anywhere people gather, and it doesn’t have to be a specific geographic location—anywhere from concert nights at the Riverwalk Commons to any park, sports venue, or meeting hall.
The concept of Main Street signifies an idealized space where our community can practice its highest values, which include civility, tolerance and commerce. Main Street’s endurance demonstrates its importance in fostering a sense of community, even in a society as fragmented as ours.
I was a particularly shy child, perhaps because of our socio-economic situation and this naturally pushed my mom to take care of me. Fortunately, she started with a series of exercises to teach me more about the art of conversation as I suspect few parents did at the time.
I was introduced to the nuances of conducting a successful conversation, which highlighted the five steps common to any conversation: opening, sharing, business, receiving feedback, and closing.
Finally, I argue that real conversation serves one or more of the following purposes:
- Information: obtaining or communicating information or understanding facts (know-what), processes (know-how) or contacts (know-who). Learning from each other.
- Sense making: getting a sense of something beyond the facts, especially about a complex issue.
- Perspectives or points of view: to obtain different points of view or move towards consensus.
- Change: To cause and change one’s point of view or intentions.
- Ideas: generate ideas, examine and imagine possibilities.
- Cooperation: enable the efficient production of some common work product.
- Deepening or creating relationships: connecting with other people, building relationships.
- Fun or entertainment: to amuse, joke, gossip, flirt.
- Recognition, attention or reputation: to receive or offer.
- Gratitude, empathy or persuasion: to receive or to offer.
- Decision-making: to make decisions.
- Problem Solving: Finding a solution or figuring out how best to respond to problems.
- Uncover problems: find hidden problems or unintended consequences of our actions.
- To share who you are: where you come from, figuratively and geographically, your personal history and the history of your ‘peoples’.
While I realize this article is a little different from many of my usual offerings, I wanted to express one of the true joys of my youth, good old-fashioned community conversation, and suggest that the element of life in Newmarket that I love most is a treasure that we must carefully guard and nurture.
Sources: The Power of Conversation: The Purpose of Conversation by David Gurteen; Roles of communication in community development Dr. EO Arum; The Art of the Oral History Interview
Richard MacLeod, Newmarket resident, history hound, has been a local historian for over 40 years. He writes a weekly feature on the history of our town in association with Newmarket Today, runs heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest and conducts local oral history interviews.