A Brief History of Conversational Firesides
Connecting the past to the present, and people to each other.
Posted April 28, 2020
By Nicklas Balboa and Richard D. Glaser, Ph.D.
History often repeats itself. In a lifetime, you might expect to glimpse the glimmer of a shooting star, lend an ear to spring’s jovial bird songs, and feel the force of a natural disaster. The tiding of seasons wax and wane with each moon, bring the past to light, and the future closer to fruition. But places and things are not the only ones coming and going with time’s march onward. As history changes, so do its leaders.
Eighty-seven years ago, the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), gave his first inaugural address to an America almost 1/3rd the size of today’s1,2. The nation faced one of the most trying, uncertain, and downright scary economic crisis of the generation in the Great Depression. Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt addressed the nation's concerns through a series of radio addresses, coined the "Fireside Chats." Roosevelt's informative, easy to digest, and at times inspirational chats garnered the attention of millions of Americans.
Today, an all too familiar fear grips the nation’s minds, and just like so long ago, individuals and families alike find themselves taking a daily seat at the conversational fireside, awaiting their debrief on what policy and actions to consider, or follow, moving forward. But the fears of then and now, though expressed through different masks, are faceless among us all. For, as FDR said in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”3
So what are we afraid of? As FDR elaborates in his 28th Fireside Chat, it is a self-evident truth that individual freedom, the product of independence and economic security, is that which we fear to lose the most4. A job, food, housing, medical care, education, and even protection from the fear of sickness and old age. ‘Til death do us part, this societal marriage to security has emerged as the gold standard of the American lifestyle. When this social contract bends, strains, or breaks, the brain enters a nuanced form of a well-conditioned call to survival.
A mixture of short-term spells of damage, loss, and suffrage beget a clouded and uncertain presage. This loss of clarity inflames our protective behaviors and can harbor palpable anxiety. In the eyes of the beholder, these forces co-exist, lingering in the air and then merging with each spell’s emergence.
A great leader can, in the face of the storm, deliver policy with empathy that says, “I am speaking with you.” This engaging form of speech not only connects people to vital information, but to each other. With an understanding of the fragility of the human spirit, an enlightened leader can navigate, even assuage the fears and anxieties brought on by the storm’s great furor. By recognizing the power that fear holds over our decisions, we can exercise a capacity for connection that makes us special, makes us human.
But what is it that connects us, one among another? Is it our closeness, our vulnerability5, or perhaps our sense of duty? Here’s what history can tell us. FDR espoused that there was a feeling shared among Americans, one of duty and service to their nation. Many today share the same intentions, as we band together in asking what to do in such hard times. While the hero in us wants in on the action, the human in us wants a hug. Being apart is not an easy task for us, but as a wise man once said in his final address to the nation, “Great power involves great responsibility.”6
Faced with the fact that our health is in each other’s hands, we turn to our leaders for guidance and inspiration. For the millions of us that are not on the front lines, we can find patriotism in the words of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, “At this time it is about we and it is not about me … we all talk about society and community and interconnection and interrelation and family and life is bigger than us. Now is the time to live that, right?”7
It's an age-old habit for humans; gathering together fireside, to chat and listen, but language is more important now than ever. The words we express will undoubtedly shape the kinds of conversations we have, which can change the quality of our interactions, and even our cultures.
Said best by the late Judith E. Glaser, organizational anthropologist and author, “Creating WE is about cultivating a global thought leadership group dedicated to fostering community, one conversation at a time. To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations. Everything happens through conversations!”
1. Historical National Population Estimates: July 1, 1900 to July 1, 1999. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/population/estimates/nation/popclockest.txt
2. U.S. and World Population Clock. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/popclock/
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, as published in Samuel Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933 (New York: Random House, 1938), 11–16.
4. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “State of the Union Message to Congress.” State of the Union Message to Congress - January 11, 1944, docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/011144.html
5. Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Cuomo: Amid Covid-19 Pandemic: 'Our Closeness Makes Us Vulnerable. But It's True That Your Greatest Weakness Is Also Your Greatest Strength'. (2020, March 25). Retrieved from https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-gov…
6. Franklin D. Roosevelt's last message to the American people. . Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbpe.24204300/?st=text
7. Gov. Andrew Cuomo New York COVID-19 Briefing April 7. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/gov-andrew-cuomo-new-york-covid-19…