09 April 2014

The Art of Conversation: An Endangered Social Skill?

The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite.

On a recent Sunday, my spouse’s son stopped by to borrow an enclosed trailer to move some furniture. While the trailer was being coupled to the Land-Rover, I had the opportunity to observe the antics of the identical twelve-year old twins who had tagged along. (Parenthetically, the twins are mirror image identical and in many instances the only people sure to tell them apart are their parents. Consequently, I pay especial attention when I see the twins – in the (usually) vain attempt to determine which twin is which.)

This time, what I noticed was that when told they couldn’t use one of their father’s electronic gadgets, the twins seemed lost and didn’t know what to do with themselves while waiting. I’ve been thinking about that observation ever since.

Technology has transformed society in ways that couldn’t have been imagined when I was the twin’s age. Today, parents are concerned whether their child’s homework will suffer because they're texting 100 times a day or spending hours playing video games. Those concerns pale in the face of concern about cyberbullying, online predators, and sexting. Since observing the twins, I have different questions. "Will they be able to hold their own in conversation? Will they develop good self-regulatory behaviors and good manners?"

Is the Art of Conversation Dying?

Some who study child development warn that actual conversation is becoming a thing of the past which isn’t good for our kids' future. Granted, few of us exercise our face-to-face socialization muscles as frequently as we did before the age of smartphones. But adults have experience talking to strangers when forced to. The muscles are there, and we generally don't worry they'll atrophy.

But what about children growing up as dependent on gadgets as this generation seems to be? What happens to the development of those skills if you've had a phone to stare at every time you didn't want to make eye contact while waiting in line? Can kids these days handle spontaneous social interactions? Are they learning self-regulatory skills?

The ability to self-regulate – the ability to manage our own emotions and behavior -is learned by practice. If mom stops to visit with someone while in the grocery store, children are reaching for the phone instead of joining the conversation or otherwise figuring out how to amuse themselves. Creativity, imagination, and self-initiation, are critical for sustainability, self-gratification and happiness when one is older.

According to Melissa Ortega, a child psychologist at New York's Child Mind Institute, "[Children and young adults] don't know how to handle conflict face to face because so many things happen through some sort of technology. Clinically, I'm seeing it in the office. The high school kids who I do see will be checking their phones constantly. They'll use it as an avoidance strategy. They'll see if they got a text message in the two minutes they were talking to me."

Conversation Takes Practice

Conversation takes practice. Today’s children may have trouble initiating interactions and engaging in small talk for lack of practice. They are missing out on experiences that help them develop empathy, understand emotional nuances and read social cues like facial expressions and body language. Neither are they learning the social niceties like “please, thank you, or it is a pleasure meeting you.”


Conversation is not Connection.

Conversation is not connection. As humans, our only real method of connection is through authentic communication. Studies show that only 7% of communication is based on the written or verbal word - nonverbal body language accounts for the remaining 93%. Each of us can think of an instance in which the tone or nuance of an email or the included cc list resulted in conflict. Indeed, it’s only when we can hear a tone of voice or look into someone’s eyes that we’re able to know when “I’m in” doesn’t mean they have bought in at all.

In the world of work, the use of electronic communication has overtaken face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication. This major shift has been driven by two significant forces: the speed/geographic dispersion of business, and the lack of comfort with traditional interpersonal communication among a growing segment of our employee population: Gen Y and Millennials.

By 2020 a mere 6 years from now, Gen Y and Millennials will comprise more than 50% of the workforce. Studies show that these generations would prefer to use instant messaging or other social media than stop by an office and talk with someone. This new communication preference is one of the “generational gaps” plaguing organizations as Boomers try to manage to a new set of expectations and norms in their younger employees, and vice versa.

Reciprocal Conversation is a Necessity

Despite the rise of digital communication, adolescents will need to converse. They will need to develop the skills needed to participate in a reciprocal conversation easily and comfortably. Such skill is necessary for a job interview or in a meeting. And - it’s not just this curmudgeonly Baby Boomer who thinks so.

Writing at SocialMedia.com, Amy Summers said, “I, as a seventeen year old, honestly believe that social networking is having an impact on the social skills of today’s youth and am worried about the effect it will have for my friends and peers in terms of employment. Employers, even of small, local supermarkets, are still looking for people who can speak adequately. They can’t afford to get a bad name because they have staff that swear at customers or can’t be understood or huff and puff when they don’t want to talk.” A Teen Speaks: Is Social Networking Damaging Our Social Skills?

Technology is certainly not all bad. Its positive effects on youth are well-documented, from the benefits of laptops in schools, to the ways in which iPads are helping children with autism become more social. Social networking, too, has a real upside, from raising self-esteem to encouraging expression of "virtual empathy."

But I still wonder about the impact of social media and other technology. Experts are divided over how and to what extent technology is affecting the social skills of the next generation. Research on the subject is just beginning. Perhaps we should be less focused on how kids are using technology and more focused on why they're using it so much.

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