My concept of a good conversation does not involve two faces facing. Consider going on a walk with a friend or sitting alongside someone in the front of a car. Your faces follow two lines that converge in the distance. You are able to turn towards the other, when you seek a deeper form of expression. Looking into the distance lets you think, in a sense you have the option to feel alone for a moment, and return to the conversation with renewed energy. When you walk with a friend you share the vista together, you think while looking at the same objects and in that way you become close in your own lonelinesses. A shared view of any kind also allows for silences in a way that a face-to-face conversation does not. A silence in a converging-lines conversation is an invitation to share in a view, a moment. In a face-to-face conversation a silence must be decoded, dissected, read. It might mean that the other speaker has something to say that they know will upset you, or that they are bored or angry. True, when you are very close to someone, silences can lose this tension, but how close can you be over a video call?
To be face-to-face is intense, and actually quite rare; it is difficult to think of situations in which two faces face each other. Sitting at a library desk, or going for a walk or drive with a friend requires very little face-to-face communication. Examples of face-to-face conversations involve restaurant dates and interrogations. These share some key features, they both aim to promote honesty, to lead to a truthful sharing of information. But this intense and necessary form of conversation is not the way that I talk to my friends, or indeed, the way that I have my best conversations.
What is the role of a face in conversation? This is not a question that I had considered before life moved online. A face is, of course, important. It is probably the best place to look for someone’s true emotions. It can be the sight by which we recognise and remember someone. In conversation, a face lets you see how deeply a person’s inner state agrees with the words that they are using. In face-to-face conversation the face is presented purposefully, it can be a canvas for intentional expression. In a converging-lines conversation the face is accessible, but more likely to be caught off guard, to be more genuinely expressive.
To FaceTime someone is to engage in a warped form of face-to-face conversation. When the situation is right, a face-to-face conversation can be intense and beautiful. They are always sharply intentional; this is what sometimes causes them to seem interrogatory, but it can also make them a very deep form of communication. This normally presupposes that you share the same surroundings. You make a silent pact to ignore some events in your environment and to pick out others. To go back to the restaurant date specifically: imagine that a waiter drops his plate while you are talking. If you are talking about a subject that you and your date both feel is important, you might both purposefully ignore the waiter. One of you turning around to react while the other tried to continue the conversation would be a sure sign of discordance between you, an imbalance in your values.
In FaceTime you lose this subtlety. You see the other person’s face, facing yours. But you aren’t aware of their peripheral surroundings. Sometimes they might talk to someone off camera, or move across the room in a way that you weren’t expecting. This lack of shared space leads to the odd result that while you engage in an intense form of conversation while looking at the phone, you can leave it instantly and accidentally by looking outside of the box and feeling yourself situated in a completely different place. So FaceTime involves the often negative intensity of the face-to-face conversation without the positive closeness that a shared environment can bring.
What can we do about this? We have to live online for now; for all of us, our friends and loved ones are only accessible via the phone or video call. My own proposed solution is to make video calling more casual. I’m going to try to build in the feeling of a converging-lines conversation by making video-calling more normal, less planned. Perhaps when a video call is a more casual activity, the face will be reduced to just one feature in my environment. Maybe then the face can return to its natural place, as a necessary, but not central, part of a perfect conversation.