Every time we communicate, we have a choice on how; face-to-face, phone call, text message, email, tweet, post, vlog, blog, podcast. The different channels to express our thoughts are endless.
Over the last decade, our choice of channel has shifted massively. This has happened gradually and universally so it just feels like the natural state of progression. We all now favour the channels that are text based over the spoken word. We email rather than talk to each other. We text rather than call. This choice is cross-generational. Studies show that in all age groups, we are texting and messaging each other far more than we are calling and talking to each other.
On the surface, this doesn’t feel like anything more than life evolving and progressing. But if you dig a bit deeper, I strongly believe that the choices we are making are a step backwards rather than forwards. I believe we are missing a massive piece of the puzzle of life and all feeling worse for it.
So why do we all favour written word over spoken?
I believe we need to recognise that technology gives us a way of avoiding the uncertainty of speaking to each other. When you speak to someone or call someone, you are no longer fully in control of the dialogue.
You might call a client to ask a quick question and end up on the phone for half an hour; so we avoid this by popping the question on email.
You might walk across the office and chat to a colleague, and end up being pulled into another conversation that means you don’t return to your desk for 45 minutes; so we avoid this by popping the question on Slack or IM. Technology makes it easy to communicate when we wish to disengage at will. We are like modern-day Goldilocks - using text to keep people not too close, not too far, but just the right distance.
Technology enables us to behave like robots. Coming into an office full of brilliant people but choosing to sit, head down, staring at our screen for hours on end, isolated from the people around us. Rather than building working relationships rooted in human connection, we settle for transactional, efficient, shallow bonds.
Yet in choosing efficiency over connection we miss out on so much.
I only have to rewind the clock back 15 years to remember a time before ubiquitous email for all.
My working daily experience was full of meaningful, deep, productive, fulfilling work relationships - with colleagues and clients. I was an Account Manager, part of a team responsible for servicing a big client. I would pick up the phone and speak to my client probably 15-20 times a day. We were both pretty junior in our respective teams, but together we were responsible for placing adverts promoting weekly deals into local newspapers. It was an ongoing, ever-changing schedule of adverts and deals and newspaper titles so there were many different ways in which a mistake could happen. And mistakes did happen. But you can’t regularly speak to another human without forming a strong relationship. We knew each other, we trusted each other, we knew both of us were working towards the same goal, and so when something did go wrong, we knew it wasn’t an intentional mistake but simply human error. And we fixed it together, because that’s what friends do for each other.
Fast forward 15 years and the majority of client relationships are formed through email, so when something goes wrong, there is no human empathy to fall back on, it simply becomes a blame game. We become faceless robots blaming faceless robots.
Another benefit of choosing written channels of communication over spoken is that you can spend time polishing and perfecting every word. Type, delete, improve, repeat. We can take time to edit ourselves until we reach perfection. We deliberate over emails to clients ensuring we use intelligent sounding words that don’t sit naturally in our everyday vocabulary. We reread and edit texts before sending them, carefully crafting the right words to friends, family, partners. We edit and polish our lives through social media posts - portraying the image we want people to see, even if this isn’t a reflection of our reality. The more that it becomes ‘normal’ to portray a perfectly polished version of ourselves, the more we fear situations in which we have to rely on just being us. We become intimidated by conversations because we feel ‘on the spot’ and exposed, it’s a live performance that we can’t edit.
Leaders of businesses are recognising that the younger generation joining the workforce have grown up with far more experience of written communication channels than spoken. Many graduates acknowledge that a skill they have yet to learn is the art of conversation. The majority of graduates won’t feel comfortable picking up the phone to a client, they won’t be confident voicing their opinion in meetings and they will prefer to IM colleagues across the office rather than walk over to talk. And beyond graduates, the reality is that all of us are losing the art of conversation, forgetting the importance of real human connection, and ultimately missing out on the joy of meaningful bonds.
A tech-free bus stop
I had a real moment of clarity the other week in realising just how much technology is changing the fabric of life. I was walking to a meeting and the route took me past my old school bus stop. There were six children sitting on the wall, wearing my old school uniform, waiting for the school bus just as I used to do. I was immediately transported back to my time on that wall. But I then realised that there was a huge difference. The six children sitting in front of me weren’t actually on the wall. They were all somewhere else. Eyes down, glued to their phones, transported elsewhere.
I felt a huge wave of sadness as I recalled how for me, that wall was a magical place. On that wall, I made friends with kids I would never have met during school. Kids older than me, kids younger than me, kids that guided me, kids that needed my guidance. On that wall, I learnt a lot about myself. I learnt how to talk to people who I wouldn’t normally ‘choose’ to talk to. I learnt different points of view. I learnt that real connections and friendships matter. It was one of these “bus stop friends” who came to my defence when facing some bullies. It was on this wall where I cried and was consoled when my Granny died. These friendships were wonderful and all six of the children sitting in front of me now were missing out on all of that, because of technology. Some of them were probably messaging their mates, sticking with who they know rather than exploring new connections. Creating early echo chambers. The younger ones were probably feeling vulnerable, but none of the older kids would know this. We hide and lose each other behind our screens.
We can’t survive without human connection
I was watching TV last night and an anthropologist talked about how the human race would not survive without human connections. What was fascinating to me was the importance she placed on friendships. In her view, we could survive without romantic relationships - all other mammals mate without the need for romance and love. The human race could survive without romantic relationships and still choose to mate simply to keep the human race alive. But the relationship that we couldn’t exist without is friendship. Friendships keep us alive. Back in our ancestors days, friendships kept you safe because you were part of the tribe. Today, we don’t have to fight daily predators to stay alive, but we do need the support, nurture, guidance and protection of good friends. Good friends can come from anywhere. My client who I spoke to 15 times a day became a friend. Some of my colleagues are my closest friends (friendships that survive beyond a change of jobs). The friendships that matter are rarely found on social media. A small handful of true friends will be there when you need them most. A hundred shallow social media friends won’t.
Living the tech dream
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that the “time we spend on our smartphones is interfering with our sleep, self-esteem, relationships, memory, attention spans, creativity, productivity and problem-solving and decision-making skills.”
Smartphones and technology are great. At some things. But they are hugely damaging to other things, including all our relationships. We have to start putting boundaries in place to create spaces where people are more important than tech. Shift the balance away from text and towards voice. We need to rediscover the power of talking. We need to prioritise building meaningful relationships that matter.
There is even now a word that describes how we snub each other in favour of our phones - ‘phubbing’. We do this all the time, pausing our friends mid-sentence to look at our phones to see if the message that just appeared is more interesting. When you stop and properly think about this behaviour, it’s so bad! It’s mean, it’s rude and it makes us all feel horrible!
I believe we’ve reached a point in time where more of us are agreeing that we need a new approach to the way we live our lives. I love Sherry Turkle’s perspective on this tipping point. She is clear that anyone who starts to question how we use technology is not a Ludditte, but someone who simply wants to find a better balance;
“The networked culture is very young. Attendants at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human. But these days, our problems are becoming too distracting to ignore. At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place…..We prepare ourselves not necessarily to reject technology but to shape it in ways that honour what we hold dear.”
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
The power of conversation
Our current use of technology adds up to a flight from conversation - at least from a conversation that is messy, open-ended, sprawling, spontaneous and unpolished. Conversation where we stumble over our words, lose our train of thought, play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. Yet these are the conversations in which the creative collaborations of business and life thrive. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathetic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled. We are diminished, hiding ourselves behind the promised control of our screens.
Conversation is the most natural, effective, yet most complex mode of human connection. We need to protect it, practise it, and nurture it. We need to teach the next generation the power, importance and art of conversation. Conversation is the most human thing that we do, we mustn’t let our use of technology destroy it.