Like most of us with smartphones, President-elect Donald Trump is learning a big pitfall in relying on social media: It is no substitute for real conversation. His frequent use of Twitter during the presidential campaign was helpful in learning about his views. But as Mr. Trump will soon command the world’s most powerful position, he must rely more on old-fashioned talking – listening, persuading, even emphasizing. For a president to use a one-way tweet – at 140 characters – is more like a dart than a dialogue.
Case in point: Trump recently sent out tweets that challenge both China and a long-held agreement with the United States about the status of Taiwan. While that US policy is troublesome in isolating a democratic and de facto independent country, Trump’s signaling in a tweet that he might overturn this policy came as a shock to Beijing, creating uncertainty and counterthreats.
Loose comments between rivals, without the benefit of full conversation, can start wars. After close military encounters in the 1990s, China and the US realized they must hold frequent dialogues at the highest levels to better understand each other’s interests and avoid a war they might regret. Those “strategic” talks have continued under three presidents, keeping a relative peace in Asia. The talks are in-depth and secret, allowing each side to compromise and avoid losing face.
World and political affairs, like close personal relationships, cannot be mediated through tweets, texts, or Facebook postings. During this year’s presidential debates, for example, candidates seemed more eager to utter bite-size quotes suitable for YouTube than engage with each other’s ideas in back-and-forth conversations.
“We are being silenced by our technologies, in a way, ‘cured of talking’,” writes Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of a recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” Ms. Turkle suggests that the constant distraction of cellphones is really “a flight from conversation that is also a flight from self-reflection, empathy, and mentorship.” She quotes Henry David Thoreau who said he had three chairs in his home: “One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
Social media is great at enhancing a feeling of connection. But it is not great for conversation. And as anyone who has seen people checking their phones at a dinner party, it can hinder conversations. In governance, too, it is imperative for leaders to talk more and tweet less.