The spoken word may be a thing of the past
Monday, June 17, 2013 3:01 AM
When I first studied culture and cultural differences, it was said that cultures change at a glacial pace, so slow in fact that humans do not know it is happening. That is certainly no longer true.
I had observed the beginning of what I thought might become a cultural problem a few years back when citizen band (CB) radios became popular. I noticed that people who were usually reticent about talking to strangers became quite vocal and chatty when doing it via a CB radio. Even though they were talking, it was not face-to-face, and they could remain anonymous. People chose a CB "handle" for themselves, and that was all the identity they used as a CB-er. It was safe to say just about anything, because at least then there was no way to trace the source.
That didn't seem to me to be a very positive way to relate to other humans, and not a good direction in which our culture seemed to be moving. But the use of CBs was mild compared to what we are experiencing now. CBs have been replaced by "social networking" and the impact that is having on our collective behavior, meaning our culture, is both observable and happening quickly.
I've always enjoyed silent auctions at fund-raising events, but the last time we attended one, it had drastically changed. Silent auctions have always been a great way to connect with strangers; we gather around the items we really want, and on which we are actively bidding. We split up, and we each watch certain things. We check out and talk to others who are bidding on the same items. Then when we sit down to dinner, everyone talks about how they are doing on the items we all are hoping to claim as ours.
Not this last time. When we arrived, we were asked if we had smart phones; we replied that no, we only had dumb ones and could have added (but didn't) that we don't take phones to social events. I mean, how smart can a phone be when it removes people from face-to-face social interaction, from connecting to others?
Those of us arriving without the required phones were provided with them for the evening. And the entire silent auction was completed on the phone, with virtually neither need nor opportunity for conversation with others. If we wanted to know how our items were doing, we had to look for, and watch them, on that phone. When we sat down for dinner at a table of mostly strangers, no one was introducing themselves and talking, because they were all bent over their phones. At the time, I remember describing it as a sad commentary on the current state of our culture, and worse, what it bode for the future. We also spent a lot less money at that event than we would usually do.
I guessed it would not be long before interpersonal communication researchers would start doing good studies about this big change. Sure enough, this week I read a short article in the big city newspaper about the subject (Star Tribune, June 5, 2013, "Tech got your tongue?" by Omar L. Gallaga, Cox News Service). Gallaga cited a study which found that "mobile voice calling has been decreasing for years...the phone call is dead.'"
We don't use our phones much anymore for talking to each other. He poses the question, "Does all the social networking and ease of online communication mean we can connect more efficiently with more people without opening our mouth? Or are we simply avoiding conversations we'd rather not have?"
Another study, from Keri Stephens at the University of Texas College of Communications, reported, "A lot of younger people tend to have fewer voice conversations and prefer texting versus face-to-face conversation."
That is pretty obvious. Stephens thinks one reason is that some younger people fear that calling can be seen as either bothering the other person, or may lead to an uncomfortable situation. She adds that "some people are relying on technology and taking the no-talking too far." No kidding! And it is getting worse.
What people see happening around them as they grow up becomes their "normal." They are seeing people not talking face-to-face, even when they are in the same room or the same social setting. They see people texting during programs and events, as if that "smart phone" was far more important than anything that could possibly be happening here and now. That becomes usual, and their reality.
It has progressed far enough now that young people have not had to learn how to be effective in a face-to-face setting. Many don't know how to listen, or about posture, and eye contact. When speaking to another person, instead of looking at the other and making appropriate non-verbal responses, they are looking down, or out into the distance, or even at their smart phones!
Imagine a job interview for a person starting a career. The two are far apart on the issues of communication behavior. The interviewer will assume lack of motivation, and listening skills, certainly not a good communicator. The all-important human connection is not made.
Reportedly one of the biggest concerns in an intimate relationship such as marriage is finances. That particular topic demands very good communication. In the future, will that be handled via the "social network" to avoid conflict? That's a frightening thought.
At the pace at which our culture is changing, soon there may be no face-to-face communication. After all, live phone calls are almost gone. We may be increasing the quantity of our communication, but the quality is disappearing. As individuals, we're becoming more isolated instead of less so.
In the not-so-distant future maybe all communicating will be done via social networking. Then finally maybe robots can take our places.