The world we live in is increasingly technology-driven while conversation, comfort and companionship have been digitalised. The price we have paid is real communication.

If you look up from your own mobile for a second, in a social setting or on public transport, it seems that those around you are spending their time buried in a screen. These are all observations that Nihal Arthanayake has dedicated his debut book to in order to unpack and teach us “how to have better conversations”.

Arthanayake is a powerful conversationalist. He has interviewed leading musicians, politicians, comedians, from Graham Norton to David Dimbleby, learning how to speak and how to listen. During his conversation at this year’s Manchester Literature Festival, the BBC Radio 5 Live host delved into his own journey to find deeper, more meaningful, and mutually beneficial conversations.

Nihal Arthanayake 'Let's Talk'. Credit: Beth Smith.

“An orange man became President,” Arthanayake told the Manchester audience. He explained that this signified the start of a breakdown in conversation, and that polarising people struggling to find anything in common means there is no room for people to understand each other, and so the breakdown perpetuates itself.

“Are you listening to talk or to understand?” he asked the audience, and admittedly himself. Social media has become a wasteland of monologues, and this is directly impacting our ability to engage in conversation in real time.

As a child of the (very) late 90s, I was the last generation to grow up without the overbearing presence of social media, but that doesn’t mean I am any less impacted by its toxins. While Arthanayake was talking, I recognised my own neglectful conversation habits, realising that putting my phone on the table during a lunch date with a friend is, as he says, effectively telling them “what you have to say is only as interesting as whatever an Instagram notification has to say”. Such a small act can have dire consequences. As Arthanayake tells us, scientists have found that it takes 20 minutes to reengage once we have diverted our eyes to our phone screens.

Social media has created another boundary to healthy conversation and that is the so-called ‘cancel culture’. In this world, people are not allowed to make mistakes. But if we only judge someone based on the mistakes they make, how can we expect to actively engage in mutually beneficial communication?

Nihal Arthanayake signed books after. Credit: Beth Smith.

Arthanayake says: “Before you ask someone why they are the way they are, ask yourself about your own prejudices first”. This tactic isn’t about forgiving criminals for their crimes, it’s about looking past their misgivings enough to be able to speak to them, ask the questions you want to ask, and – crucially – understand their answers.

Arthanayake looks at conversation on a level that, in these days, can seem rare. He reminds us that words have meaning, and it’s a call to bridge the divide that politics and social media have placed between us, to work on understanding each other on a deeper level. Maybe it won’t fix all the problems society has, but it could be the best place to start.

By Beth Smith


Nihal Arthanayake’s book is available at all good bookstores and online: click here to purchase your own copy.

For more information on Manchester Literature Festival, click here.