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REMEMBER THIS: When's the last time you had an old-fashion conversation?

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod looks to understand why an ‘age old pleasure’ seems to have disappeared

When was the last time you had an old-fashion conversation? Not one conducted over Facebook or by email, or a brief chat about the weather with a neighbour while rushing off somewhere. I am talking about a two-way exchange about something meaningful, a community connection. I remember having so many quality interactions with people around my community just a few short years ago.  

I began thinking about this topic shortly after engaging in a good, old-fashion conversation on Main Street and I decided that I wanted to do some further research. Is the community ‘gab session’ that was a big part of my youth on its way out?

Studies on whether the quantity of face-to-face conversation is indeed declining are inconclusive. But I believe the quality of our community interaction has most certainly taken a hit. Clearly our habit of communicating via social media or email has promoted a general decline in our ability and opportunity to engage in ‘one-on-one’ exchanges.

Ironically, I am communicating with you online. My preferred form of communication about our history is by presentation or via my heritage walks, but most certainly since COVID-19 my opportunities for face-to-face connection have declined. My presentations at the Newmarket Public Library return this month, so I hope I can re-establish the personal connection I enjoy.

I also enjoy one-on-one oral history interviews. One may not fully recognize just how much of our heritage was initially captured in oral form and passed down over the generations by word of month. Local author Ethel Trewhella’s genius was capturing these oral histories and putting them in printed form for us to enjoy today.

I frequently look back to when I was a child, learning about the history of my town from those in the know. Sitting with my elders, I would be regaled with all the stories of the past, mini biographies of those who around me, gaining an understanding of just where I fit into the world around me.

One of the regrets I most frequently hear from those whom I interview is the fact they did not talk more with their ancestors.

I recall when I would exit my home, someone would engage me in a conversation, asking how my family was and bringing me up to date on the news from around our community of Niagara and Queen streets. Back then, we were part of a neighbourhood community and we talked to each other.

A shopping excursion with my mom or grandmother was never just a dash to get the items and get home, but consisted of a leisurely stroll along Main Street or along the Newmarket Plaza. We would chat with the merchants and fellow shoppers for hours it seemed. We knew everyone and had a finger on the pulse of our community.

I did not fully comprehend the joy inherent in this experience but I now find myself longing for those days. This is likely why I still head down to Main Street daily to ‘do my rounds’, always stopping at my favourite watering holes like Soupa or Metropolis for a coffee and a bit of local chat. Getting my hair trimmed at Continental on Main used to be something I looked forward to each month. That is where you went to find out what was really happening around town.    

There is a myriad of things to blame for the conversational collapse, and the crux of it all is we’re just too short of time. Newmarket is a flurry of neighbourhoods and people, making the very idea of a good old-fashioned chat seem like a relic from a previous era.

However, it's too simplistic to say modern life is pulling us away from making 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 uncomfortable, my mind under stimulated.

I am often told Newmarket was a very different place when I was a youth, the population was smaller, and everyone knew their neighbours. I am not convinced that it is about numbers.

I attended the mayor’s levee last week and there were crowds of people in attendance. I knew some of the people well but most of the people were relative strangers. I watched seasoned communicators like our mayor and Jackie Playter establish a rapport with everyone around them and I was instantly taken back to my youth when the skill of effective communication was far more prevalent. Today, when I encounter these people, I am left in awe, they are a throwback to my mom and grandmother’s time.  

My grandfather, who was in the monument business for nearly 70 years, dealt with his community during a dark moment in their lives and yet he was proud of his ability to have an open conversation. Back in the late 1960s, he warned me there was a widening gulf between the expression of personal feelings and what’s was being said. He maintained we were losing the subtle nuances of body language, sentiment and experience. Rather than engage with the messy reality of talking, many of us have stopped really listening. I should have listened to him back then.

Instead of impromptu chats with the people we encounter on the street, shopping or while walking in our neighbourhood, we seemed to have turned to the world of online apps and highly edited messages to help forge new bonds. We don’t see them, and they do not see us, thus these exchanges make it difficult to really connect.

Face-to-face interaction used to be the only option, so our brains became hot wired around having those kinds of conversations. Our brains are incredibly sensitive to changes in facial expressions and body language so, as we move toward phone, email and online communication, much of this was lost.

Studies do indicate there has been a general decrease in our communication skills. For example, children’s social abilities decline as they prioritize virtual contact over face-to-face interaction. Studies also indicate that after just five days without looking at their digital screen, these same children were substantially better at reading human emotions, the natural instincts beginning to reappear.  

Further research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found conversation between adults and children between the ages of four and six change the way the children’s brain forms and is critical to language development. 

There’s also strong evidence this diminished social contact negatively impacts our mental health. A 2015 study found people aged over 50 who meet with friends and family three times a week are half as likely to suffer from depression than those who have virtual contact only.

Forming a deep connection with a community member, family member or close friend creates a chemical in the brain called ‘oxytocin’, generally referred to as the love and bonding chemical, which stays with us long-term.

Whether at home or work, with friends or family, it’s quite likely we experience a feeling of not truly being heard. Knowing that others know how you feel, what is important to you, and where you see yourself in this world is vital to all of us.

It became vital for me to create more opportunities for conversation. I needed to accept that it takes time to establish effective conversation, I needed to actively clear small amounts of time to speak with friends and colleagues. 

Writing my weekly column, I found I needed to be more curious about what others think and feel; ask them questions and then listen. I tend to question more, answer less. I needed to remember that one of the most important gifts I can give someone is my attention. My oral history interview program has proven to be a gold mine of local history and all I had to do is say is tell me about yourself. 

In earlier articles, I have examined the concept of the Main Street. Main streets are generally the meeting place of the community. Main Street can be found anywhere that people come together, and it does not need to be a specific geographic location —  anywhere from concert nights at Riverwalk Commons to any park, sports venue or meeting hall.  

The concept of Main Street signifies an idealized space where our community can practise its highest values, which include civility, tolerance, and commerce. Main Street’s endurance demonstrates its importance in nurturing a sense of community, even in a society as fragmented as ours has become.

I was a particularly shy child, perhaps owning to our social-economic situation and this of course prompted my mom to worry about me. Thankfully, she embarked on a series of exercises to teach me more about the art of conversation as I suspect several parents of that time did.  

I was instructed in the nuances of conducting a successful conversation, which highlighted the five steps common to every conversation: the opening, sharing, business, receiving feedback, and the closing.

In closing, I submit to you that real conversation serves one or more of the following purposes:

  • Information: obtaining or conveying information or an understanding of facts (know-what), processes (know-how) or contacts (know-who). Learning from each other.
  • Sense-making: gaining a sense of something beyond facts, especially concerning a complex issue.
  • Perspectives or viewpoints: to obtain different points of view or move toward a consensus.
  • Change: to challenge and shift someone’s viewpoint or intentions.
  • Ideas: to generate ideas, examine and imagine possibilities.
  • Collaboration: to enable the effective production of some shared work product.
  • Deepening or creating relationships: to connect with other people, to build relationships.
  • Entertainment or fun: to have fun, banter, gossip, flirt.
  • Recognition, attention or reputation: to obtain it or offer it.
  • Appreciation, empathy, or reassurance: to get it or offer it.
  • Decision making: to make decisions.
  • Problem-solving: to find solution or figure out how best to respond to problems.
  • Reveal problems: to find hidden issues or unintended consequences of our actions.
  • To share who you are: where you come from, figuratively and geographically, your personal history and that of your ‘people’.

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, the good, old-fashioned community conversation and suggest that this is an element of Newmarket life that I most treasure and one that we must careful to preserve and cultivate.

Sources: The Power of Conversation: The Purposes of Conversation by David Gurteen; Roles of Communication in Community Development by Dr. E.O. Aruma; The Art of the Oral History Interview

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.