In a world where so many “honest” discussions among people are likely to be platitudinous or mere posturing there remains, we’re told, cases of conversational openness and frank exchanges. I set out to discover whether such sanctuaries for unfiltered opinion actually exist.
The first place I was encouraged to examine was the dinner table where family members sit down together and, between bites and gulps, are said to discuss some of the major public policy issues of the day. Unfortunately, when I sat down, all would-be participants were not present. One child, it was announced, was away, eating supper at a friend’s house, and the other one might have been gone as well. He sat there looking down at his smart phone nearly the entire time and was largely disregarded by his parents. The mother busied herself bringing in and removing dishes, heading to the kitchen to retrieve the ketchup and to replace a fallen spoon. When she returned she sat down then mentioned an especially obnoxious patient she had encountered in the doctor’s office where she worked and about some details of her workout at the gym. The father by and large concentrated on the food in front of him and expressed complete satisfaction with the meal. He did, at one point, mention some office gossip and described a tie-up at the bridge during his commute home. The mother asked her son whether he had completed his homework. He mumbled something difficult to decipher, but which she chose to regard as an affirmative response. There was mention of health insurance as it related to the burden of paperwork in her office, but before she could elaborate, the phone rang. Wrong number. The subject, however, did not resurface. The husband announced he’d be watching a baseball game at 7PM, as he headed toward the sink with his dishes. The kid had already departed the table and drifted off toward his room.
And so the much-heralded conversation around the dinner table was not, on this night, the source of honest and frank exchanges or contentious public policy debate. Dinners at home are generally brief. There’s much trivia to wade through. Subjects change rapidly, while attention spans are limited. Besides which, good and ample food generally suppresses the desire for discussion and debate.
Maybe it’s not at the dinner table, but in the bed where one should look. “Pillow talk” has often been said to feature frank expressions of views, exchanges undertaken in complete privacy. Alas, my observations did not support such a conclusion. Often enough one partner was already asleep when the other slipped into bed. Or they watched TV together, after which one rolled over, while the other began reading. There was, just as at the dinner table, some conversation, but mostly related to personal happenings or scheduling for the following day.
It would appear then, based upon the substantial evidence presented here, that most families contrary to popular belief have utilized neither dinner at home nor bedtime to engage in substantive discussion of the leading issues of the day. Have we overlooked other settings? Is such a search likely to succeed?