culture & community relationships & love

What I Meant To Say (or: A Communication Conundrum)

by JoAnna — February 25, 2014

Perhaps I’m getting older. Age falls in step as it matches my stride, and with its sweet sounding voice urges me to look over my shoulder. Remember the good old days? it asks. Reflect on them. Yearn. Case in point: over the weekend I found myself using the term “when I was young” to preface a story of using a typewriter to draft reports in primary school. The words, when strung together, was my didactic way of communicating that, my, how things have changed, and how quickly time is racing.

Yet, I digress, because age and getting older isn’t really the topic of this post.

My reference to age was meant to be used to talk about a time when instant messaging, email, Twitter, Facebook and the other virtual platforms didn’t exist. It was a time when you’d have to sit down and write a letter to stay in touch; lending thought to your words before putting pen to paper. It was a period when washing the ink from your hands–typewriter ribbon could be such a bitch–was somehow thrilling. It was a time when, in order to entertain yourself, you had to actively engage in something, or invest time in someone and spent moments observing, listening and looking for ways to secure a middle ground for exchange. Such meetings were more about the person in front of you than all the others who weren’t. It was about feeling the melt when watching a friend’s laugh lines emerged. Those times were about knowing when to reach out and place your hand on theirs should tears start to fall. What my “back in the day” didn’t include was absently scrolling through your Instagram photos while having coffee with a friend.

Speaking with a tech-savvy friend of mine last weekend, this topic came up in a roundabout way. After discussing the meddling ignorance of Internet trolls we exchanged remarks about how quickly things have changed in the last 20 years; so quickly, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to keep up.

Yup, this looks about right sometimes. Lifted from Glass Eye Productions:

Yup, this looks about right sometimes. Lifted from Glass Eye Productions:

Now don’t get me wrong, having all these new apps, tools and networks are a blessing for several reasons. What could be better than sending a message to someone living across the country (or the world) and getting a reply in real time? Not only is it comforting to know you can always be in touch, but it is satisfying because it helps us feel less alone.

Being a nomad, an expat always on the move, it is hard to imagine how difficult and/or strange life would be if there weren’t tools like Skype or email to reach out. Keep in touch. I don’t know about you, but the thought of crafting a ten page letter causes my wrists to recoil in horror. Even worse is the idea of sending that message out into the world and having to wait weeks, if not longer, for a response to arrive.

Oh yes, I’m as guilty as the next person: I’ve learned that when I want/need a response, I want/need that response now.

It’s not surprising, then, how swiftly we’ve embraced new forms of communication. What is unnerving though, is how this quickly this evolution has shifted individual and collective behaviours/expectations, and how it has done so overnight. It is obvious such tools make our lives easier and bring us closer in many ways, but what has become more evident is the way they make it harder to engage with one another. How all this tech has made communication more vapid and less sensible–more superficial and less engaging.

The examples of the dissolution are everywhere. People walking the sidewalk with their heads bowed as they text/read an article/tweet to 2,000 followers? Check. A subway car full of people playing games or dreaming up witty Facebook statuses on their smart objects? Check. Children who have the cognitive understanding of how to work a mouse or swipe an iPad before they’re able to read? Check. Watching awkward interactions between twosomes, threesomes or foursomes–people who gather at a cafes because it’s been such a long time–and yet conversation never flows because of all the phones on the table, too many dams have been erected? Check and check.

The latter example is particularly confusing to me because, hey, if you’re not going to be present when meeting someone why bother organising a face-to-face at all?

Added to the equation is how we find empowerment, feel emboldened, by being plugged in 24-7. We fall victim to crafting virtual realities that are less about our accomplishments, hopes and experiences but more about how we’d like to be perceived. We give into wasted hours of uploading and organising, scrolling and handing out likes, instead of reaching out on a personal level to nurture the few bonds we have.

No, we’d rather seem to spend our time figuring out how to get the approval of the many instead of the respect of a trusted few.

It is because of these things that I wonder if all this tech helps us to become smarter or if it’s just dumbing us down. Unable to read non-verbal cues, we’re also less inclined to speak our truths, whatever they may be. We may do this because we’re unsure how are truths will be acknowledged. We may also do it because we’re unable to use our words to say what we mean, and mean what we say.

Linked to this is our growing impatience and inability to sit still and be present. People seem to have a constant need for stimulation, and someone else is responsible for that. That instead of picking up the phone, going for a walk, reading a book, writing a letter or engaging in something that lifts us up, we’d rather clamour for attention in all the wrong places. So desperate we are for some sort of togetherness, closeness, that we overlook the people sitting right under our noses and turn to insulated virtual worlds where we isolate ourselves in the process. We seem to like to hide behind a series of screens to express our deepest thoughts and fears (however wretched they may be) in platitudes of 140 characters or less.

I’m starting to think that if it has boiled down to this then we are all in trouble. If we are only expressing how primal and uncouth we’re able to be then what’s the point in saying anything at all?

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