Reclaiming Conversation: Bring Back the Communal Table

I recently had the pleasure of reading the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr Turkle has spent the past 30 years observing how people react and adapt to new technologies that change the way we communicate. In her book, she argues that ‘texts, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, instant messages, and snap chats — simultaneous, rapid-fire “sips” of online communication — have replaced face-to-face conversation, and that people are noticing the consequences.’

Not only do I see this through my work with The MindShift Foundation, but I see it daily in the cafés run by my daughter. I’m continually saddened to see people sitting at tables and not talking to each other, but consumed with their “smart phones”. I watched people for a whole morning, just wishing for something more than a feeling that social media is truly sabotaging real communication.

According to The MindShift Foundation’s Clinical Psychologist Dr Lars Madsen, over-reliance on devices is harming our ability to have valuable face-to-face conversations, ‘the most human thing we do,’ by splitting our attention and diminishing our capacity for empathy.

Dr Madsen says, ‘As human beings, our only real method of connection is through authentic communication. Studies show that only 7% of communication is based on the written or verbal word. A balance of 93% is based on nonverbal body language, and it’s only when we can hear a tone of voice or look into someone’s eyes that we’re able to know when “I’m fine” doesn’t mean they’re fine at all … or when “I’m in” doesn’t mean they’re bought in at all.’

Anyone can hide behind a text, e-mail, Facebook post or tweet, projecting any image they want and creating an illusion of their choosing. They can be whoever they want to be. And without the ability to receive nonverbal cues, their audiences are none the wiser.

This presents an unprecedented paradox. With all the powerful social technologies at our fingertips, we are more connected — and potentially more disconnected — than ever before.

Back to the café. As I arrived the following day, it appeared to be a busy morning for the café. I had my Sunday paper in hand — my regular ritual — and I saw a lady, of a similar age to myself, sitting at a large table on her own. I wanted to ask her if I could join the table, but for some reason I felt trepidation and decided to wait for a free table.

And then I had a thought. Wouldn’t it be nice to bring back some form of community and offer a “communal table” at the café where we could politely say hello? We could have a chat if we felt like it and maybe meet new people.

Communal tables are nothing new. Sharing a table with a stranger has long been a part of certain dining experiences: lunch counters, cafeterias, and, of course, bars. People clamour for more interaction in their daily lives, and sharing meals is not a new thing.

Alison Pearlman, the author of Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America sees the communal table trend as something that has been around for a while. In the 1960s, Benihana popularised the idea of dinner as a show and the communal table provided the perfect setting. Food theatrics was the shared experience that made it comfortable for strangers to dine next to each other as they gazed in collective amazement at the chef chopping, flinging, and grilling food with a circus performer’s dexterity.

Then in the 1980s, changing economics and demographics kindled the casualisation of dining out. When Danny Meyer opened Union Square Café in New York in 1985, he famously set up dining at the bar. For a gourmet restaurant, this was revolutionary. But it also made good economic sense. It instantly added more dining seats and provided a comfortable setting for solo eaters — a growing demographic. The 1980s also saw a rise in single-person households as people waited longer to marry. This demographic was also spending the most money on food.

The appeal of eating out shifted from the value of an intimate dining experience to the quality and uniqueness of the food itself.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, a number of enterprising trendy restaurants embraced communal tables without the flying food. The tables were popping up either as the only seating option, or in addition to traditional seating in places like Asia de Cuba and Momofuku in New York, and the Publican in Chicago and A-Frame in Los Angeles. ‘When you’re eating in a rec room environment, you’re highlighting the food,’ Pearlman says. And what is more “rec room” than a communal table? When interesting food is the focal point, we suddenly feel free to chat with our neighbour about the locally sourced produce or steaming bowl of ramen in front of us.

When you go out the purpose is to enjoy yourself. When strangers gather happily together at a table, it’s because they’re getting something more than a standard meal or drink out of it. With the lack of social interaction in our “connected world” becoming a major cause of mental health problems, wouldn’t you prefer to join a communal table to have a coffee and share a real connection? I would. And I would relish the experience of reclaiming conversations — something we seem to be forgetting to do.

Elizabeth Venzin is the Founder and CEO of the Australian not-for-profit organisation The MindShift Foundation. Resources about preventative mental health can be found on the MindShift website

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