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“I would like to inspire a small talk revolution” With Author and Journalist Celeste Headlee

I would start a small talk revolution. Get people to have at least 5 short conversations every day. Get them to say hello to neighbors…


I would start a small talk revolution. Get people to have at least 5 short conversations every day. Get them to say hello to neighbors. Talk in waiting rooms, chat with taxi drivers, talk to their grocery store clerks. Talking to other people in person is extremely good for us. People who are friendly with their neighbors live longer, are less prone to depression, and have a lower risk of heart attack. Get in the habit of asking people about the best thing that’s happened to them over the past week. You’ll feel better and be healthier.


I had the pleasure of interviewing communication and human nature expert, award-winning journalist, and author Celeste Headlee. Celeste is a journalist and radio host, professional speaker and author of Heard Mentality and We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter. Celeste is an expert in human nature, reclaiming common humanity and finding well-being and frequently provides insight and commentary on what is good for all humans and what is bad for us, focusing the best research in neuro and social science to increase understanding of how we relate with one another and can work together in beneficial ways in our workplaces, neighborhoods, communities and homes.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

I was a professional opera singer who started doing radio as a day job. 20 years later, I’ve hosted national talk shows for NPR and PRI, and been on the BBC, CNN, PBS, NBC and a number of other networks. After all those years of interviewing all kinds of people, I did a TEDx talk in 2015 about how to have better conversations. That talk now has 16.5 million views, which tells me that the need for better conversation is felt globally. I wrote a book on the subject (called We Need To Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter) and now deliver keynotes and lead workshops worldwide, for companies like Apple, Google, United Airlines, BASF, Chobani, and Oracle, along with universities and non-profits.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

 That’s asking a lot. Journalism takes you to a lot of interesting places. One of the stories I like to tell is about covering a strike at General Motors in 2007. I arrived at the plant early in the morning and stood outside the gates waiting to talk to workers, but the police showed up and told me that if I stopped moving, they would ticket me for loitering and I had to carry my 35-pound equipment bag the whole time because otherwise it would be considered abandoned property. I did a number of updates for various NPR shows that day and as the day goes on, you hear my voice get more and more exhausted. By the time I was being interviewed for All Things Considered, I sound like I’m ready to pass out. It wasn’t fun at the time, but the memory makes me smile now.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? 

I’m working on a number of different things. First and foremost, I’m writing a second book about our culture’s obsession with productivity and efficiency. Also, I’m developing a mobile app that I hope will help people get into the habit of talking with strangers on a regular basis. And I’m co-hosting a podcast called “MEN” from PRX and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. It traces the origins of misogyny. How sexism and patriarchy began and what we can do about it.


Between work and personal life, the average adult spends nearly 11 hours looking at a screen per day. How does our increasing screen time affect our mental, physical, and emotional health? 

We aren’t really aware of all the ways that smartphones and tablets are affecting our brains and our relationships. First, they are distracting us to significant extent. Even if our phones aren’t making noise, our brains are on alert, waiting to react to an incoming email or text or other notification. Scientists say our digital tech is putting our brains into a nearly constant state of stress and fear. So we are rarely using the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that carries out executive thinking and uses the highest order cognitive functioning, to solve problems or make decisions.

Research shows that this lowers our IQs and diminishes our ability to focus. But it also has an effect on the people around us. One study asked pairs of people to sit down and chat with others and in half of the conversations, researcher set a phone on the table. In conversations where a cell phone was present, people were more likely to say the other person was empathetic and unlikable. Also, we are becoming lazy thinkers, consulting our phones for answers instead of looking for information so that we can find our own answers.

Finally, we are using digital communication (email, texting, etc.) to replace the majority of our conversation. Face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication has been drastically reduced and that’s partially to blame for our current epidemic of social isolation and loneliness. Keep in mind that social isolation is as bad for the human system as smoking.

Can you share your top five ways people can improve mental wellness and create a healthy relationship with technology?

 Tech is a tool. It’s not inherently bad or harmful, anymore than a hammer is. The difference is that when we pick up other tools like hammers or screwdrivers, we use them for a task and then set them down. We need to learn to do that with our cell phones and tablets. Use them for a specific task and then put them away. Don’t put them down in a place where they’re still visible and able to distract the brain, put them away. Don’t constantly check email. Instead, check it only a few times a day. Turn off nearly all of your notifications. You don’t need to know every time someone likes your post on Facebook, for example. Make more phone calls. If you’ve exchanged three texts with someone, it’s time to call.


51% of Americans say they primarily use their smartphone for all calls. With the number of robocalls increasing, what are ways people can limit interruptions from spam calls?

 I have a hard time believing this. Maybe this is what people say, but data doesn’t really support it. In the UK, the number of outgoing phone minutes dropped by 2.5 billion in 2017, for example. And a look at phone data in the US showed that the average American adult spent almost a half hour texting each day and only 6 minutes on the phone.

If you haven’t already, put your number on the Do Not Call registry. And when spam calls come in, block them. After a couple years of doing this assiduously, I get almost no spam calls. (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0133-cell-phones-and-do-not-call-registry)

When you get a spam call, hang up immediately and don’t give it another thought. If you are really getting too many of these calls, you can choose not to answer any numbers you don’t recognize. If it’s a legit caller and they leave a voicemail, call them back.

Between social media distractions, messaging apps, and the fact that Americans receive 45.9 push notifications each day, Americans check their phones 80 times per day. How can people, especially younger generations, create a healthier relationship with social media?

 How much time per day do you want to spend on social media? When I’ve informally polled people on this question, the average answer is around 45 minutes. I don’t think most people realize how many hours they spend on social media. So the first step is to install an app that lets you track the amount of time you spend on each activity, something like Moment, Reality Check, or AppDetox.

Next, ask yourself how much time is reasonable to spend on social media and then choose the times of day when you’ll check in. For me, I check social media three times a day, around my meals. I schedule tweets and posts if I need to, but otherwise I keep those windows closed for the rest of the day. I’ve removed social media from my phone so that I have to use a computer if I want to look at Twitter or Facebook. By doing all of this, I’ve reclaimed hours of time each day that used to be spent mindlessly refreshing feeds.


80% of smartphone users check their phones before they brush their teeth in the morning. What effect does starting the day this way have on people? Is there a better morning routine you suggest? 

Try leaving your phone in the kitchen or another room at night so that you can get dressed and brush your teeth without picking up the phone. Having your phone near you at all times encourages addiction. You should be intentional about using your phone, using it as a tool, rather than habitual. Your phone puts your brain on alert and makes you stressed and fearful. That’s no way to start the day.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote?

 “Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have the power to say yes.” Eleanor Roosevelt

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would start a small talk revolution. Get people to have at least 5 short conversations every day. Get them to say hello to neighbors. Talk in waiting rooms, chat with taxi drivers, talk to their grocery store clerks. Talking to other people in person is extremely good for us. People who are friendly with their neighbors live longer, are less prone to depression, and have a lower risk of heart attack. Get in the habit of asking people about the best thing that’s happened to them over the past week. You’ll feel better and be healthier.


What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media? 

I have a blog at my website, celesteheadlee.com, and post often on Twitter (@CelesteHeadlee) and Facebook (@Celeste.Headlee)

Originally published at medium.com

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