Communicating with each other has never been easier; what used to take days or weeks can now be accomplished in a split-second, and distance is no longer the constraint it once was. My daughters both attend college in different time zones from me, and in the short time they’ve been way we’ve already texted, Skyped, emailed, called over the phone and even sent a few notes via US Mail.
So if communication has never easier then why are so many of us doing so little of it?
Much has been written about how young people’s personal communication skills are on the decline since the advent of texting and social networking, and to be sure, even anecdotally my daughters have reported difficulty meeting people – at college, no less – due to the lack of urgency: after all, when a person is alone, she can use her phone as a security blanket and therefore has little incentive to go through the awkward ritual of having to seek someone out, shake hands and make introductions.
But regardless of what’s happening in the huge social experiment of today’s youth, what about older folks? I’m in my 40s. Surely my generation communicates well with each other, right?
My own personal experience – albeit not a statistically significant one – indicates otherwise. Over the past few years I’ve been troubled by an increasing lack of communication among my generational brethren, and oddly enough, it even occurs at the electronic level where back and forth relays of information are particularly effortless.
I started thinking about this topic a few weeks ago, when during a conversation with my mom she mentioned how much she pines for the days when you could pick up a phone, call someone and expect an answer. No caller ID. No voicemail. No waiting period during which you wonder whether your message has been a) received b) given to the person intended; c) forgotten about entirely or d) simply ignored.
Initially I argued against my mother (surprise!) and suggested that caller ID and voicemail have been huge benefits. They’ve shifted the power from the person making the call to the person receiving the call. No longer am I obligated to answer the phone if it’s someone I don’t want to talk to (telemarketers, unknown numbers) or if the timing is poor (during dinner, heading out the door, going to bed). No more am I forced to speak with a particular loquacious person who shall remain nameless when I know I’ve got to leave in five minutes to take my son to drum lessons.
But I’ve thought a lot about this topic since my mom and I spoke, and I’ve concluded that she’s onto something. We generally no longer view voicemail messages as something that need to be addressed immediately, but rather view them as suggestions: something than can be addressed (or not) at some point in the future if it’s convenient. Lately I’ve found this trend applies to other mediums as well. During the past year I reached out via email to several friends I hadn’t seen in quite a while, and some of my messages were either never answered or were answered after a few months, and often very quickly. (“Gotta make this short – really busy.”)
A note to all people who keep announcing how busy their lives are: @@We’re all busy. Get over yourselves.@@
The lost art of letter writing – which I still practice – of course fairs poorly, as most of my letters are not only never returned (which I understand and expect) but are also unacknowledged (which I don’t understand even if I’ve come to expect it), and more and more even texts – heretofore a medium that commanded immediate attention – have been addressed in the same manner as phone calls and emails. They’re placed in the “get to it later when it’s convenient” pile, and often never followed up on.
Now, to be fair, I still send and receive hundreds of emails and texts every month, but these are typically of the “what time is the meeting on Tuesday?” or “Man the Brewers suck” variety: quick communications meant to share quick information. For these types of correspondences texting and emails work very well.
But here’s the question: what’s replaced the lengthy phone conversations and in-depth letters or email correspondences that we used to have with family and friends? I’m afraid that in many cases those types of interactions have gone by the wayside.
You might say, “Sure, Paul, but you're kind of an asshole, and it’s clear people want nothing to do with you.”
Fair enough, but I think this trend doesn’t stop with me. Even among my close friends and family I haven’t noticed a lot of reaching out to others. The following excerpt is from an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal last May:
…we spend so much time maintaining superficial connections online that we aren’t dedicating enough time or effort to cultivating deeper real-life relationships. Too much chatter, too little real conversation.
I think there’s something to this. More and more I witness people proactively avoiding real communication. Invitations to parties go unanswered or – and this really kills me – are declined without the offer of an alternative. So, for example, an invitation to get together is answered with “Can’t that evening, sorry,” instead of “can’t that evening, but what about next Friday?” This appears to be a growing trend, and I find it sad.
Back in the 90s I kept all of the letters I received and took copious notes of daily events and correspondences. In an effort to organize some of my old crap recently, I plowed through several years’ worth of paper and was amazed at how many letters and phone calls I received on a regular basis, and not just from family and close friends. Even people very much on the periphery of my life called to say hello or took a half an hour out of their lives to compose a letter to me. Upon review, I was amazed by the number of correspondences I used to exchange with people.
These days, even the most modest attempts at real human interaction are often met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. I know. I’m starting to sound like that old codger. And I’m starting to agree with my mother. Forecast for hell: a deep freeze.
But I think it’s time for each of us to start thinking about what’s important and what signals we’re sending to each other. After all, is a person who you don’t see, don’t talk to and don’t respond to messages from really a friend? If yes, in what sense? If not, I’ve lost a boat-load of friends over the past few years.
Dang, that’s depressing.
I think to make myself feel a little better I’ll call someone up and leave a voicemail.