It’s hard to imagine life before the invention of electronic mail, text messaging, social media and telephones. Long gone are the days of message deliverers, pen pals and the excitement of checking our real mailboxes every day. Though there are certainly undeniable benefits and advantages that have come from the advancements made in communication, the technology takeover has threatened the art of engaging conversation. It’s hard to know which changes brought on by modern communication are actually good when the consequences are both extremely positive and negative.
On one hand it’s become easier to keep up with relationships that mean the most to us, such as with distant family members or friends, but on the other, it’s harder to connect on a deeper level. It’s so easy to avoid confronting real situations. Like, actually talking to each other. It seems as though modern communication methods have lent themselves as daggers to meaningful, fluid conversation and human contact.
Most of us have become oblivious to the behaviors repeated around us: pairs sitting at restaurant tables hunched over their electronic devices, mothers texting as they push their babies through the park, teenagers huddled in groups with nothing to talk about except for what’s on the handheld machines. We’re accustomed to hiding behind superficial ways of communicating that authentic conversation now leaves us feeling vulnerable. We feel awkward when stripped from the barriers built from liquid crystals generating color, and are forced to look someone in the eye. Talking feels like so much work — even I have been guilty of letting phone calls go to voicemail on purpose in order to avoid conversation — that parents of Generation Y and Millennials don’t really request for their kids to call them anymore; instead, they say, “Text me more often, okay?”
Additionally, the constant chatter — on our devices and on social media — has turned us into abusers of language, as Ann Deavere Smith, founder and director of Harvard’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, describes in her book Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines. With our screens between us, it’s too easy to say what we don’t mean, to create a fictional reality and hide away from the weight of our true feelings. Lies are blended with the truth. The tone of our speech, the look in our eyes, and our body language often betray all the things we portray to be real through text messaging or on social media. We profess our unfailing love via e-mail even though we’re still uncertain about the future of our romantic interests. We punctuate our text messages with exclamation marks and wide-mouthed emoticons to give the illusion we’re excited about the family reunion while we’re planning to pick up an extra shift at work to avoid going.
When face-to-face, “we can learn a lot about a person in the very moment that language fails them. In the very moment that they have to be more creative than they would have imagined in order to communicate. It’s the very moment that they have to dig, deeper than the surface to find words, and at the same time, it’s a moment when they want to communicate very badly. They’re digging deep and projecting at the same time,” writes Smith. In almost every column or book on human relationships, you’ll read that two of the biggest characteristics of successful relationships are communication and trust. Yet this can only be done and built on the outside of our smartphones, where raw, unedited conversations about the stories that have shaped us are shared.
Furthermore, conversation and listening skills go hand in hand. A lot of insight of a person’s feelings is gained when the parties are genuine and attentive. Our degraded abilities for conversation greatly affect how attentively we listen. Many today engage in conversation with the intention of their ideas being known, completing missing out on what other person is saying. Smith asks, “Who’s listening anymore? What does it take to get people to listen? When do people feel they need to listen?…We live with the expectation that words mean very little, because we have seen it all before, heard it all before. And that is why I find myself going on a quest down memory lane for a time when words meant something in my family, in my church, in my city, in my world.”
There’s a difference between how much we communicate and the quality of our conversations. The more we put away our phones, computers and tablets, the less will we feel the need to constantly check for information about the people in front of us, or compare our interactions with the still shots of other people’s lives. The questions we ask will be more thought out and smart. Our time spent with each other will feel less wasted and more sacred. There won’t be a need for project campaigns that exist to facilitate conversations — something that is a natural human behavior. These projects will be replaced by authentic conversations among families around the dinner table or in the car, or friends at a dinner party.