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Left to Our Own Devices: Is Conversation Really Becoming Extinct?

Posted: 10/10/2013 14:58

Language is wonderful. The tone, pitch, implication and richness of the spoken word entertains, inspires, educates, forges relationships, builds communities and provides comfort and belonging. Much has been made of the downfall of verbal communication in the digital world. We connect in bite-size chunks rather than meaty morsels; we broadcast rather than engage; we share every minor moment of the humdrum of our lives. But are devices really obliterating the spoken conversation? And does it matter?

Reams of articles have been written on the connected generation and the change in the way we communicate with each other. So have we lost the art of conversation? US psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle thinks so. In an article in the New York Times she says "We are sacrificing conversation for mere connection", as executives text during meetings and families sit together but connect to other people on separate devices. Someone who sends an SMS or an email when they're with you sends out a very clear signal: they think that there is something better than the present, something more important and more interesting than you.

Connected devices have made a huge dent in the quality of global communication, both written and spoken. 24 hour access via electronic devices to the Internet, digital media platforms and rolling news channels meets our insatiable desire for all that is 'new': new information, new devices, new clothes. It also fuels our need for immediacy: we expect instant responses to posts, real-time news broadcasts, immediate replies to messages. This requirement for instant communication removes the ability, the requirement and the necessity for punctuation, grammar and depth. To what extent this matters is a different debate entirely, and a can of wriggling worms which I have no desire to open: if we can get our message across clearly and effectively, argue some, does quality really matter?

What lies at the heart of the issue - in a rather large nutshell - is not just the supposed demise of quality communication but concern for the psychological and sociological effect this has on ourselves, our community, our society and our future. Lisa Heffernan in one of her recent blog posts poignantly states that, "Every time I see a young mom with toddler in one hand, gazing at her cell phone in the other, I want to rush over and remind her that everything that child is learning about human interaction she is teaching him right then and there".

Lamenting the loss of the conversation and blaming it on technology runs the risk of harking back to a bygone, sepia-tinted era of time spent chatting on doorsteps, of chinwags across the garden fence. The real concern today is whether we risk losing the life skills which we learn as part of the art of face-to-face conversation. If we lose our ability to listen and make eye-contact, we risk isolating ourselves and limiting opportunities. If we can only concentrate long enough to read a few Twitter feeds, how do we learn concentration skills which are essential in the worlds of commerce, medicine, academia, to name but a few? Influencing and problem-solving skills are also crucially learned through face-to-face conversation.

In my organisation, we use a 'real life' videoconference experience which recreates in-person meetings brilliantly. Employees prefer it to phone calls: the suites are booked out all day, every day. We find it easier to listen if we're looking at the person speaking; we build better relationships through face-to-face communication; and decisions can be made faster with no need for long email chains.

We can't blame devices per se for a change in the way we choose to communicate. Communications technology is an enabler, it empowers us and it's fun! A digital dialogue is preferable for those people who find it hard to communicate verbally; who would rather keep in touch with their friends and family by SMS, email or across social media platforms than not at all; perhaps for those living in rural communities; for teenagers finding certain things difficult to talk about; and for those who Skype because they can't afford time off university or work to visit parents.

There are steps we can take to maintain, encourage and nurture the skill of conversation and discourage the device reach: we can phone-stack; instil a device curfew, 'device free' rooms or evenings at home; encourage our businesses to have email-free days; or place mobile phone holders in meetings. We just need to make sure our connected devices complement our lives rather than submerge us.

 

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