“Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success.”
— Paul, J. Meyer, American best-selling author and communications expert
“Susan,” I cried. “Quick, get out your phone and text me something!”
“What are you talking about?” she responded, looking up from her coffee.
I motioned with my head for Susan to look around the room. At least a dozen people occupied other tables in the coffee shop, but Susan and I seemed to be the only ones communicating face-to-face. The other patrons —many high school and college-aged — were communicating but only in a technical sense. Most were “thumbing” away on their smartphones. Occasionally, someone would chuckle and turn the phone to their neighbour.
“Think about it,” I said, leaning nearer. “All of these gadgets were designed to enhance communication but what have they done — limit the personal aspect of interaction!”
“I think you’re taking it all much too seriously,” she said, then raised a finger as her phone suddenly started playing Uptown Funk, her latest ringtone. I leaned back and sighed.
Has our ability to communicate been hampered by technology or simply changed? I think most of us would agree that effective interaction is a vital component of successful living. I also think the better our self-esteem and level of personal awareness, the more proficient we become at communicating and expressing our needs and desires openly and efficiently.
As much as we might enjoy the modern modes of interaction, we still need to maintain active one-on-one communication. After all, so much of good communication is non-verbal. Our ability to decipher the subtle clues we all provide when face-to-face is critical. Unlike spoken word or face-to-face interactions, it’s easy to misinterpret words or symbols on a screen. I once had to mediate a conflict between two colleagues at work. One claimed the other had yelled at them. As it turned out, he had merely used uppercase and exclamation points in an email.
I’m old enough to remember manual typewriters, carbon paper and White-Out. As an advertising writer — with poor self-esteem — it was agony for me to pick up the phone and call a client. I was so insecure, rejection of my writing was perceived as a rejection of me. Had I access back then to email and text, I might well have hidden behind the technology. There wasn’t so I couldn’t — I was forced to face and reconcile my fear of confrontation and rejection.
If I’m to be completely honest, when fax machines arrived on the scene and later email, I was relieved. By this point, however, I had developed some effective strategies for dealing with criticism of my work. Rejection is always easier to manage when our self-esteem is sound.
It should be noted that when speaking with someone over the phone and even more so, engaging in face-to-face communication, we can immediately hear and see the impact of our words. There’s less room for misinterpretation and more room for self-responsibility. It’s too easy today to leave anonymous comments or vent one’s spleen with little fear of repercussions. If you want proof, just check any online business review or news website’s comments section. If you want to develop your self-esteem (and you should), learning to take responsibility for what you say is an important step and hiding behind your keyboard is avoiding that step.
“The single biggest problem with communication,” wrote William H. Whyte, American urbanist, “is the illusion that it has taken place.”
If you are afraid of personal one-on-one interaction and are hiding behind technology, then the time has come to face your fear and learn the skills necessary for effective communication. Perhaps the time has also come to revisit what it means to communicate. If we use technology in a well-informed and grounded manner to connect on a global scale while building and maintaining relationships on a personal level, then maybe we can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert.