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  • Holly Blum, The Word Whisperer

Why Can’t We Communicate Like We Used To?

The rise of social media, texting and smart phones has completely altered the way we communicate with each other. When is the last time you picked up the telephone to catch up with a friend? It’s probably been awhile.

On the other hand, when is the last time you texted someone to cancel plans so you wouldn’t have to explain why? What about scrolling through your Facebook feed instead of having a conversation with your spouse? We’re all guilty of hiding behind our devices. Whatever the reason, our reliance on technology is making it so much harder to foster real connections with other people.

On the surface, texting and social media were designed to help people connect, but in reality they’re making it more challenging. Do you really know most of your Facebook friends? Who would really be there for you in a pinch from your long list of Instagram followers?

Technology enables us to take the easy way out and as a result, we have forgotten what it’s like to confront our issues. It’s safer, more anonymous, and less stressful to just text someone than it is to pick up the phone or look anyone in the eye and hash out a problem.

What happened to long conversations steeped in the play by play of one’s day? What happened to long letters (or even emails) where you would write in complete sentences and avoid abbreviations? What happened to saying, “I love you” or “I’m sad” instead of using one of thousands of emoticons to stand in for your feelings?

In this ultimate quest for brevity, we are losing the ability to truly express ourselves-- our feelings, our opinions and our perspectives. And we are also losing the ability to make others experience emotion on a deeper level.

What do you think would happen if instead of a speech at your wedding, your father took the microphone and read what he would have tweeted or snapped about this special day? At your Bar/Bat Mitzvah how would you feel if your mother addressed your guests by showing your photo and saying “#blessed.” Where would we be without the power of unlimited words?

According to research used in Ed Keller and Brad Fay’s The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, our conversations in person are much more powerful than those online. This study suggests that 90% of the influential conversations that we have every day happen offline, while only 8% are online.

Recently, I came across a box of old letters my parents and I wrote to each other while I was at sleepaway camp. While perhaps some of what was written wasn’t terribly exciting, the letters all had one thing in common: they were so detailed! And through these details I could remember how I felt when I was writing those letters, what was important to me (sticky buns on Sunday, of course, and winning the tennis ladder) and how hard my parents tried to make their lives sound dull so that I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on anything.

I want my children to grow up knowing how to have a face-to-face (or even a telephone) conversation with someone. I want them to understand that there is certainly a place for technology, but it’s no substitute for a handshake or a hug. I want them to realize that just because they might be able to express themselves in 140 characters or less doesn’t mean they should.

I don’t have a magic bullet. I don’t know how to make people put down their phones at the dinner table and play a round of 20 questions. But what I do know is that the more we talk about it and realize the toll technology is taking on our ability to communicate, the greater the chance we have to make some changes.

My grandmother, an avid viewer of Turner Classic Movies, always says, “They just don’t make movies like they used to.” Part of me always laughs because it’s such an old-fashioned wistfulness. But maybe she has a point. That’s how I feel about communication today. We just don’t communicate like we used to.

I’m not willing to say the damage is done. Not while I can still use words to make people smile or cry. There is too much power in words to let technology take control.

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