I'm not breaking any news by saying technology has impacted our lives in ways we may not have even imagined a few years ago. Perhaps the biggest shock has been the completeness of the changes.
Wired telephones have disappeared from millions of American homes. Compact discs are dying as iPods and downloadable music make the purchase of a CD unnecessary. It is virtually impossible to find a VHS player even though most adults still own VHS tapes. Now, even the plain DVD is becoming old-fashioned . Many new movies are issued on HD Blu-Ray, with a DVD copy thrown in for free. 3D televisions will hit the mass market in time for the holidays.
Try to find a cell phone that is just that: a phone without Internet, streaming video and audio capabilities. You don't text? Really? Why not? To call one of these computers-in-your-hand a phone is not very accurate. 70% of kids prefer to communicate non-verbally, meaning text messaging or using social media like Facebook and Twitter. Almost 3 million texts are sent every single day in the United States. The average American teen sends and receives over 3,000 text messages a month. Another startling number for you to consider: 25% of teens admit to texting while sitting at the dinner table. My experience is 100% text during a movie.
So, what is the problem? Technology makes it easier, cheaper, and quicker to move vast amounts of information. The consumer has almost total control of how and when he accesses that information and entertainment. The problem is we are losing the ability to engage in a verbal conversation.
In such a world the ability to listen to someone else while watching for smiles or frowns or confused looks is gone. Emotion and physical reactions are impossible to perceive when reading words on a 2 inch screen. Building a true friendship in a 140 character tweet can't be done. All this leads to a breakdown of civil dialogue and exchanges. People are becoming used to expressing opinions and feelings in rapid shorthand. The ability to listen politely and respond with respect is disappearing.
I am not likely to do more than stick my finger in a dike with multiple holes. But, I would like to offer some reasons why conversation (the verbal kind) is important. A recent national study that caught my eye noted there are 5 things we can do each day to improve our mental well being:
1) Connect with others. Make human contact.
2) Be active. Get off your duff and do something.
3) Be curious about the world. Ask questions and try new stuff.
4) Keep learning to keep your mind functioning at peak efficiency.
5) Give some of yourself to others. Share.
Guess which one human activity covers all five...verbal conversation. Talking with someone causes you to connect with another person. You are face-to-face, making contact with another human being. In doing so you will be active. You will generate and show emotion. You will gesture with your hands. Your voice will rise and fall. Your ears will hear the sound of a human voice.
Unless you only have conversations with yourself, and those don't really count, you will encounter something that is new or different. Something in the conversation will cause you to become curious. Maybe you wonder how the other person could be so wrong. Maybe he or she will tell you about a trip they took that prompts you to ask about that place. Or, maybe it will be as mundane as what is a good place for sushi. It is impossible to talk to someone and not have your curiosity triggered.
To participate in a conversation your mind has to be functioning at a certain level. Processing the words, thinking about what was meant, and then forming a logical response takes brain cells. You will learn something about the other person based on what is said. You will learn something about yourself based on your reaction to what is being said.
By listening and responding, you are giving your time and attention to another. Unlike texting or voice mail, you can't pretend to not be there. You are there as part of the dialogue. By actively participating you are showing respect for the other person. You don't have to agree with what is being said. But, the simple act of listening and responding shows you care enough about the other person to be there.
The average person speaks around 8,000 words a day. Using those words to establish and build friendships, strengthen business relationships, and maintain a healthy marriage all while helping to improve your mental health makes exercising your verbal skills during conversation time well spent. The ability to listen to someone else's words intently and genuinely care what they are saying is paying that person the ultimate compliment.
Texting, cell phones, and social media have their place. Most of us would not choose to give them up. They can enhance communication. What they shouldn't do is replace face-to-face communication. Physically being with another person and communicating is a large part of being human.
I worry that the skills of reflective listening and forming appropriate verbal responses are skills not being passed on to younger generations. Texting is to good communication what McDonald's is to fine dining. They may be in the same family but the results are quite different.
Am I old-fashioned? Is it better to reduce chatter and communicate as efficiently as possible? I'm afraid you can't text me your answer, but you could leave a written comment below.
10/17 Late Addition: Just appearing in a USA Today story about changes over the next 40 years: a man is trying to explain to his teenage daughter the importance of face-to-face communication. But, because of Facebook, "she could not grasp it." My point, exactly!