Conversation Office Hours

Cal Newport's book Digitial Minimalism next to a smartphone with headphones attached

This year, I tried something new as my Lenten practice: conversation office hours. I came across this idea while reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life is a Noisy World by Cal Newport (which is an awesome book that I highly recommend).

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism, Newport argues for what he calls “conversation-centric communication” (147). He distinguishes between conversations (where you hear a person’s voice and interact with them in real time — and hopefully see their face as well) and connection (which can be as simple as a text message or a like on social media). Newport writes, “Many people think about conversation and connection as two different strategies for accomplishing the same goal of maintaining their social life” (147). However, Newport doesn’t agree with that view. He writes, “The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship” (147). Newport urges his readers to downgrade connection to a mere logistical role in their life and instead to prioritize conversations.

One conversation-centric practice that Newport recommends is to hold conversation office hours. Newport’s primary example is of a businessman who encourages family and friends to call him at 5pm during his commute home, and I have adapted that practice into something that works for me. I installed the app Do It Later on my phone, which allows me to schedule text messages. Every Monday at 4:30pm PDT, I use the app to send this message to about ten of my friends:

Hi friend! I’m holding conversation office hours from 5-6pm PDT (8-9pm EDT) today. Feel free to call me and we can chat about whatever for however long (:

(Let me know if you want me to stop bugging you about this. I’m using the app Do It Later to schedule these messages.)

I originally included a line telling my friends to call me via Signal or Skype if they wanted to video chat. However, these days I’m on my computer all day for work, so I took out that line from my texts because most days I’d rather go on a walk and have audio-only phone chats.

Then, I keep myself available from 5-6pm, usually by just going for a walk. Some weeks, no one calls. Other weeks, I get to have a fun chat with a friend or two. Other times, I’ve had a friend reach out and say they’re busy today but would love to chat later in the week. So far, I’ve only held conversation office hours on Mondays from 5-6pm PDT, but I’ve toyed with the idea of scheduling another hour each week or even just spontaneously holding them some days. If multiple friends reach out, I’ll chat with a friend for 10-15 minutes before wrapping up our conversation and reaching out to the next person.

In Digital Minimalism, Newport eloquently describes the major benefit of this practice:

The conversation office hours strategy is effective for improving your social life because it overcomes the major obstacle to meaningful socializing: the concern […] that unsolicited calls might be bothersome. People crave real conversation, but this obstacle is often enough to prevent it. If you remove it by holding conversation office hours, you’ll be surprised by how many more of these rewarding interactions you can now fit into your normal week. (164)

There are a lot of ways you can tweak this practice to better suit your needs or proclivities. For example, Newport suggests holding coffee shop hours or pub hours. (I’m reminded of when I was a theatre major in college who often hung out in the green room to socialize.) I like the Do It Later app because I know if I don’t text people beforehand then they’re likely to forget about it, and the app automates that process for me. (I wouldn’t unequivocally recommend the app, however, because one of my friends told me that he hasn’t been getting the messages it sends out.) I also know that a lot of instant messaging and video-chatting platforms (like Skype and Google Hangouts, for example) allow you to set your status as “Available” or even something like: “Holding conversation office hours. Call me!” If you like one of those platforms and you’ve got friends who reliably use it, you may want to host your conversation office hours within that virtual space.

I started hosting conversation office hours in Lent, and it has been reasonably successful for me, so I’ve decided to keep it up for as long as shelter-in-place continues. In these strange and stressful times where we’re physically distancing and striving for social connection, conversation office hours has been a helpful practice for keeping me connected. Or perhaps I should say: for keeping me in conversation with my loved ones.

(If you’re an IRL friend or an Internet friend and you want me to notify you when I’m holding conversation office hours, let me know! I can add you to the list. I’d love to chat sometime!)

Featured image by Cam N. Coulter.

“Conversation Office Hours” by Cam N. Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About Cam N. Coulter

Cam N. Coulter thinks incessantly about speculative fiction, gender, and intentional communities. Their poetry has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer, Eye to the Telescope, and Polu Texni, and their academic nonfiction has appeared in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. Cam reviews short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty and blogs about social justice, simple living, community, and spirituality at The Ruined Report. After their year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. They currently work with adults with developmental disabilities in the SF Bay Area. Cam can be found on their website or on Twitter @camncoulter.