Editorials, Opinion

The underestimated value of conversation

By its very nature, the written word is not the best vehicle for a conversation.

Texting has brought it as close to real-time dialogue as writing can get, but written words like these — the ones you are reading right now and that have occupied this space in the past — aren’t suited to the kind of back-and-forth that allows one to listen and speak in equal measures, that brings two people closer to a common understanding. Which is why, try as we might to speak with you and to you, it can seem like we’re talking at you.

We’ve tried educating, begging and cajoling to get our readers to get their vaccines, wear masks and otherwise do what’s needed to end this pandemic. We’ve tried explaining, debunking myths and answering general questions. But the written word can be stagnant. We talk to you, but it’s much harder for you to talk back.

The same goes for every op-ed and article, for every radio or TV news program, even for Gov. Justice’s COVID briefings. They are all one-sided conversations.

On Monday, Justice hinted he’s contemplating a third vaccine lottery. If the prior offers of a million dollars or shiny new cars haven’t convinced a person to get the vaccine yet, it’s unlikely anything else Justice — excuse us, we meant to say Babydog — thinks to give away will do it now.

Instead, he should look into launching something like the Count Me In initiative from the Southern Economic Advancement Project and Fair Count. The program hosted 14 telephone town halls across seven states so people had the chance to call in, ask questions about COVID and/or the vaccine and receive answers in real time from health experts.

In other words, people were having conversations.

There was no media filter, no politician at the microphone. Just concerned citizens, the volunteers coordinating the event and the health experts.

We can see the value in having something similar in West Virginia. As much as everyone hates unsolicited phone calls, we can even see the value in having a call center, staffed with real-live people (no robots, not even to get the call started), calling up individuals and saying, “Hello, my name is [blank]. Do you have any questions or concerns about COVID-19 or the vaccine that you would like to discuss?”

A simple question, but it may be enough to start the conversation. And once the conversation is started, maybe someone’s mind can be changed.

In her article “Vaccinating the South Through Conversation,” Sarah Beth Geh quotes her neighbor in Louisiana who wouldn’t get vaccinated: “We’ve been left behind so many times … we take matters into our own hands, because we’re not going to bite ourselves.”

But then Geh writes: “Days later, the neighbor followed up to say she received her first dose …. What changed in three days? A single conversation.”

Some people will never be persuaded. Others, however, might just be waiting for people to stop talking at them — which can come across as condescending, like the person being spoken to is dumb — and start talking with them, instead — to have a dialogue where their concerns are heard and their questions answered without judgment.

The value of those conversations can’t be given a price tag. But if we had to assign one, we’d say it’d cost whatever Justice was planning to spend on yet another lottery.