My hypothesis: the advances in communication technology over the past ten years have greatly improved the quantity of my communication with people while simultaneously destroying its quality and, thus, a replacement of the quantity of virtual communication with meaningful, personally-interactive communication, will improve the quality and reduce the quantity of communication-related issues.
I know, I know--it seems as if I'm using technology as a cop out (or scapegoat, yet again), fingering it as the source of all of my social problems. Believe me, I know that I am at the root of every situation but I believe that I can plead a solid case as to why the aforementioned advancements have acted like a cancer in many of my relationships.
Here's what I think: for every degree of separation that we undergo from actual face-to-face communication, we lose multiple levels of meaning, we experience an increasing lack in the human element of our conversations, and we forfeit an ever-increasing number of opportunities for truly meaningful discourse with each other. Don't believe me? Here's my argument:
Level 1: FACE-TO-FACE COMMUNICATION
- Being present and sharing physical space and energy (remember--we are in-tune with each other in an extra-sensory way and benefit from being in each other's presence. Don't believe me? Try to be around someone who is constantly negative in their worldview and commentary on things for an entire day. Then do it for a week. Very few people can endure that without it impacting their psyche and emotional well-being. Then think of that person with the infectious (but not overbearing) positivity and glass-is-half-full outlook on life. Surely you know at least one (again, not the bubbly, overly perky, "Ohmygod isn't this little tomato AWESOME AND AMAZING!!!!" type). Don't you find yourself gravitating towards that person when you're feeling down or out-of-sorts? They replenish you just by being in their presence or just by the physical act of hearing them speak).
- Seeing someone's facial expressions as they speak. When you speak to someone face-to-face you can see how they react to something you've said or how they look when they speak. It really allows you to understand exactly how they are feeling and, in most cases, precisely what they are saying.
- Hearing someone's voice. Combining this with being able to see their face affords you a nearly complete picture of what someone is intending to say; the only thing you are lacking is their thoughts. When you can hear the person's intonation and the emotion in their voice, you can also understand better what they are saying; they may physically say one thing but mean something entirely different based solely upon their mood (which you can see and sense) or the way they say something.
- It is difficult and emotional. Why is this a positive? Because it shows that both people have a certain amount of trust for one another. Things that people would say under the cloak of anonymity on the Internet would NEVER be said in person, which means that what is said face-to-face is often more genuine and heartfelt. You are showing someone a great deal of respect when you elect to speak to them in person instead of hiding behind the shield of technology.
- It is difficult and emotional. Some people cannot handle their own emotions let alone other people's. It can be a challenge to hold a conversation with someone, face-to-face, when there are strong emotions flying around, particularly anger and sadness. It can be tough speaking to someone knowing that you have made them cry or to withstand someone yelling at you because you have angered them...but it's also incredibly rewarding.
- It can get awkward. Mostly when it comes to the end of a conversation, specifically when you end it and the other person doesn't get the hint. You don't want to make someone else feel uncomfortable by telling them that you're done speaking with them...but sometimes you have to (or you can try just to walk away).
- It can be difficult to depart gracefully. This is related to number two but in a slightly different way. Sometimes you wind up speaking with someone for far longer than you anticipated and you need to cut them off because you're running late. Or maybe they are that person who just doesn't get the hint and will follow you as you walk away or ignore your subtle communication and body language that is saying, "I'm done talking, homie!"
Level 2: PHONE CONVERSATIONS
Pros: #s 3 and 4 from Level 1 (hearing someone's voice and dealing with potential emotional difficulty)
Cons: Same as Level 1 PLUS the loss of Pros 1 & 2.
Level 3: TEXTING/EMAIL/INSTANT MESSAGING
Pros: None from Level 1--only the following:
- It is instant.
- It is private.
- It is simple to end a conversation (just don't answer or respond!)
- It is possible to hold multiple conversations at once.
- It is easy to retrace earlier conversations.
- A lack of clarity (MUCH easier to misconstrue something that someone says).
- An impersonality that removes the human element from the conversation.
- A complete lack of verifiable emotion (outside of text style editing...but even that is not foolproof).
- An increase in brazenness (more likely to say something offensive or upsetting through a level 3 method than in either level 1 or 2 simply because you can tune yourself out if the emotions run too hot).
- A lack of verifiability of identity (you don't know for sure that the person you think you are communicating with is actually the one writing; it is, however, undeniable when you are speaking face-to-face or over the phone).
Pros: Same as Level 3 except that it is public instead of private
Cons: Same as Level 3 plus the following:
- All comments are public (something that might not embarrass someone in a one-on-one conversation might now be blown out of proportion. Also, someone else might be upset by a comment you make to a different person)
The bottom line is that the further removed you are from a one-on-one, personal, face-to-face conversation with someone, the more likely you are to encounter misunderstandings, a lack of regard for propriety (mostly as a result of the anonymity associated with virtual conversation), and an abhorrent disregard for common decency (you would never ignore completely someone who is right in front of you and yet, with frighteningly increased frequency, people leave emails, text messages, IMs, and Facebook comments unacknowledged).
It is unequivocally the latter-most element that has caused me the most grief and that has contributed the most to the nonsense melodrama that I have had to endure over the past two years. People seem to think nothing of leaving an email or text completely unaddressed, or they hide behind the excuse of convenience--"Sorry man, I read it on my phone and forgot to respond." It doesn't matter whether it is something important like a question being asked or sort of emotional sentiment being conveyed, or completely inane like an anecdote or quip that is being shared--many people fail to recognize that it is just plain rude to ignore someone's communication, particularly when it is for no other reason than sheer laziness or habitual forgetfulness.
We engage in so much virtual communication that the value of any individual thought or sentiment shared by someone has fallen away. Habits and simple courtesies that we learn in grade school are lost by the time we reach the age where we can text or go online--things that, for the last several thousand years, have been unquestionable and often unconscious: when someone calls you, you call them back; when someone writes to you (whether it is a postcard, a hand-written letter, an email, text, instant message, or Facebook post) you either write back or at least have the decency to acknowledge that something was written.
Imagine if people handled business communications the way they do their personal ones--nothing would get done simply because people would be in a constant state of arguing! It's simple: if you're going to answer things in a timely fashion at work, why can't you do it outside of work, with the people who really matter to you!? I'm not even speaking of INSTANT or IMMEDIATE replies--I'm talking about within a few days, maybe a week or two at most. How long does it take to say, "Hey, got your email/text/whatever" or even just to reply with an "okay" or "yeah"?
Anyway, I presented my hypothesis and now it's time for the experiment. I cannot control the people who refuse to engage in the simplest of gestures (acknowledging communication) but, earlier today, I realized that I CAN control MY level of engagement. And thus therein lies my experiment. Since I am growing increasingly disheartened and disgusted by the quantity of miscommunication, of hurt feelings (on my end by people ignoring my attempts to converse and on others' ends by misunderstanding things that I have said), and of general immaturity as a result of Level 3 and 4 communication, I have decided that, for the rest of the month, I will engage in ONLY Levels 1 and 2 with the people in my life. That means precisely the following:
I will not be checking my Facebook account until at least the beginning of November.
I will not be emailing anyone nor will I be acknowledging any emails sent to me (except in a few rare situations).
I will not be text messaging anyone nor will I be acknowledging any text messages.
The only two ways in which I will communicate with anyone will be either over the phone or in person. If it's worth texting me or emailing me for, it should be worth calling me--and vice versa. I figure that, this way, I won't have any hurt feelings by waiting like a dope for weeks on end to see if someone will respond to something I have said via text, email, or Facebook, and, conversely, everyone knows, right up front, that I definitely won't be responding (thus removing that limbo-waiting phase that always pisses me off), I won't be able to upset anyone with a comment or joke in a public forum, and I will greatly increase the quality of the communication that I have with my friends. At the end of the day, I'd rather hear your voices than read your words; I'd rather get together to catch up than keep an email chain going.
I'm not sure of what to expect but I do know the following things:
It will be difficult, challenging me to break habits that I have spent years developing.
It will be enlightening, helping me to understand both my friends and myself and how we interact on a much deeper and meaningful level.
It will allow me to show my son that we don't have to be reliant on new technology and fads simply because they are popular and pervasive.
And, perhaps most importantly of all:
It will be a return to simpler times.