“The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” ~ John Naisbitt

Another observation from my recent travels. Seated in the boarding area for a delayed flight in Chicago, I watched and counted a mass of waiting passengers within the immediate area. 126 people glued to some electronic device, making no eye contact with others, expressing no body language, or attempting to engage another in traditional pleasantries or dialogue. I also saw three couples having a verbal conversation. Another four were sleeping.

I’ll let that experience stand on its own.

It’s clear that we have never been more interconnected. And while convenient and expeditious, at what cost has interconnectivity come?

This is a topic many have studied and documented. The pros and cons associated with the effects of technology abound. Yet while we may feel we’re connecting effectively with others via social media and the internet, is too much of electronic-relating creating a sense of social isolation?

To a modest extent, I am guilty of creating internet “friendships.” Some have grown, others have fizzled. Few are deep. What’s clear, though, is that without hearing the tone of a person’s voice, without seeing body language, without simply being able to ask the other to clarify, misunderstandings can and do take place. I’ve even found some of my “real life” friends contacting me via email instead of the telephone. Feeling this to be a rather cold form of communication, I have started answering some emails with a phone call. Odd how it put an end to email and once again began verbal communication.

In a June, 2010 article in Psychology Today, Alex Lickerman wrote, “Our emotional invisibility in a digital world perhaps also explains so much of the vitriol we see on so many websites. People clearly have a penchant for saying things in the electronic world they would never say to people in person… It’s as if the part of our central nervous system that registers the feelings of others has been paralyzed or removed when we interact electronically, as if we’re drunk and don’t realize or don’t care that our words are hurting others.”

The internet and accompanying technology are great for transferring information efficiently. For transacting emotionally sensitive or satisfying connections, it’s not. And as many know, relationships are grounded in substantive connections. Not in tweets, texts, and cursory commentary.

In our world, one in which social media proliferates, there are still ways we can exercise good judgment. If we can’t initiate or encourage traditional human interaction, here are three ‘rules of engagement’ to consider:

  • Don’t delay your responses to messages you’d rather avoid. If someone has reached out to you, they care about your response.
  • Relationships are affected by online communication. It’s much easier to injure friendships online than in person because of the ease of creating misunderstandings electronically. Non-verbal communication (purported by some to represent 40% of our in-person communication) is completely absent. Remember that every message you send becomes a permanent part of your personal or professional brand.
  • Balance time online with time spent with family and friends. It may seem too obvious to mention, but it feels qualitatively different to go out to dinner with friends than to spend several days engaged in back-and-forth electronic exchanges. So much is lost in the latter. And our effect on one another is much more intense when we meet and communicate in person. There is no substitute.

I’ll close with the following coffee shop image, shared today by a friend, Valerie Brunnberg.

20 thoughts on “Debatable

  1. This is one reason I enjoyed the movie Wall-E. in the film, highly evolved individuals were sitting side-by-side on their barca-loungers staring at their computer screens. There were thousands of them in what appears to be a football stadium size lounge in a futuristic place. They do online chats, order their food online but they were not engaging with the person next to them at all! Oh, and they also forgot how to walk, be aside their barca-loungers took them everywhere.

    I’m with you about engaging the other person seated across from you. Only then can there be true dialogue.

  2. Great post Eric, many, there are surely many, many more “rules of engagement to follow”, good to make a start. The transformative nature of Social Media is so overwhelming, it is moving at the peril of squashing Naisbitt’s optimistic foresight.

    • I’ve read interesting articles about how social researchers and health care providers are concerned about digital use becoming increasingly addictive. As one friend says, “What a world.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Barbara.

  3. So true; when working at a college, I would have seminars on communication for the students, and remind them that 7% is verbal, 38% vocal and 55% body language/non-verbals (especially facial). I also taught them how to give a good handshake and about eye contact. A job interview would not care how fast they could text. Of course, cyber-bullying was an entirely different training…

    • Perhaps my perspective is a bit old school. Yet when I speak in public, I know just what you’re addressing. And your job interview scenario is spot on. Maybe a new typing test will gauge how fast one can text. Such a skill! 🙂 Your time and comment is appreciated, Theresa.

  4. We are connected . . . via cell phones, text messages, smart phones, the world wide web, Facebook, Linkedln, Google, Goodreads, StumbledUpon, e-mails, and tweets via Twitter.

    And, yet, we are more disconnected than ever.

    Our face time has given way to Facebook time. Hugs and kisses are often of the cyber variety. And we LOL more than we laugh out loud.

    Can you hear me now? 😕

  5. The scariest part of this transformation, is that it is so easy… Tuning out (by tuning in to FB, WordPress, etc…) feels efficient, thus gives us the feeling that we are being social. In essence we are withdrawing from the world with the intention of engaging.

    • It’s a bit like reverse planned obsolescence; the easier you make something, the more who will quickly flock to it. I accept that it’s “social.” What disappoints me is how superficial the engagement has become. Thanks, Randall, for creating time to read and comment. Having read your Gravatar, I “get” where your heart resides. I relocated to the High Desert seven years ago from Seattle. I still miss the PNW. Further, I lived and worked in Tokyo for two years. I know how the distance amplifies yearning.

      • Yes, you are absolutely correct…the superficiality stems directly from the ease, so different from the strong roots that would be developed going the personal route and instead losing a bit of ourselves amid all the technology.

        An amazing story & experiences you have…Seattle, Tokyo and now the High Desert. Three areas that I think meld well together 🙂

  6. I love that quote, for starters. And you know, I definitely feel people are reflecting more on what it means to be human. I can see it out there.

    Counting 126 people would definitely have kept you busy! But yes, a sad result. You’d think they were interacting in a way with the people “out there” they were connecting with, but distinctly, yes, it robs the NOW of its experience and potential to really interact, in the flesh, really now.

    I agree with you on internet friendships. They can’t really be deep, can they? Certainly you connect deeply on a certain level with someone/their experience/where they’re at and you were or whatever – there’s no doubt that’s a true deep connection, but you can’t call your friendship deep as there is many reasons in reality another person may not be inclined to you truly in the flesh (even if just their own aversion to closeness, really).

    A wonderful post, Eric, and nail on the head of real issue today. I think you are amazing to start answering emails with a phone call!! A part of why I might email or text is because I actually don’t want to trouble the person, & let them respond at their leisure. So if you telephoned me in response to an email I’d be no less than startled!! Also, I do pour my heart out more openly in words on page, which I guess is much your point as well – how to be real in person, any more. Definitely a good article.

    Cheers. (& love that ‘we have no wi-fi/talk to each other) 🙂

    • I agree and can feel it too. There *is* a favorable shift in and with humanity unfolding. I have friends who humorously call me “cave man” for my old school ways – views that I am proud of when it comes to connections, relationships, and communication. They’re ingrained and part of the authentic me. I’m not anti-technology but I do believe there are times, places and uses for what has rapidly become obsessive and omnipresent. But now I’m on my soapbox. 🙂

      A believer in honest, open dialogue and adamant about the value of truly listening, I frequently get eyes rolled at me. And it’s quickly water off this duck’s back. 🙂

      In any case, thank you, Noeleen, for creating time (again!) to thoughtfully comment and acknowledge the post.

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