“I can’t believe they are continuing to find more ways for us to connect,” wrote an old school friend who linked up with me on yet another social media site. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest—we have myriad ways of reaching out to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. Yet, despite this omnipresent connection with the world, a growing number of people, especially youth, are becoming increasingly disaffected.
While most of us acknowledge and appreciate the immeasurable benefits of instant and ubiquitous digital connection, few of us recognize its costs. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Sherry Turkle, who has been studying the impact of technology on our lives, one aspect of human interaction that is being eroded by our dependence on gadgets is the good old art of conversation. Even though we have more ways to connect and “talk” to each other, she argues in her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, that these newer forms of communication are eroding essential features of our humanity as they replace face-to-face conversations.
Prof. Turkle uses the poignant example of apologizing to drive home her point. As we all know from experience, saying sorry in person for an offence, however minor, can be a messy affair. In addition to humbling ourselves, we have to literally face the disapproval, displeasure or disdain of the person we are apologizing to. These negative emotions are typically conveyed through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. While saying sorry can indeed be a discomfiting experience, it is “this realization that triggers the beginning of forgiveness”, says Prof. Turkle.
However, today, people prefer to apologize behind a screen. Texting “I’m sorry” is a far cry from saying it in person, and the receiver knows it. The process of forgiveness, which can deepen human relationships, is cut short. Thus, while the sender of an online apology may feel short-term relief for not having to deal with knotty emotions, the opportunity to build a bridge of human connection is lost.
Similarly, Prof. Turkle quotes actor and comedian Louis C.K., who emphasizes the importance of personal interactions for cultivating empathy. According to Louis, “kids are mean” because they are in the process of learning the impact of their words on other people. So when a child says, “You’re fat” to another kid, he sees the other child’s face “scrunch up” and realizes that his words were hurtful. In contrast, when a child sends the same message online and hits send, he thinks “that was fun,” because he has no real-time feedback of the distress caused by his words. As online communication increasingly substitutes personal interactions, children will have fewer opportunities to hone their emotional understanding.
But before we point an accusatory finger at our children for spending too much time online, we have to examine our own digital habits. How many of us are guilty of answering an “important” business call during family dinners? How many of us are tethered to our devices even on family vacations? Even when we are supposedly home with our children, we have our eyes and ears glued to our phones and laptops. In a sense, we are not really there for them. As a result, family conversations that digress and meander down unexpected terrains, do not take place as often and children do not have the space to spill out their troubles or work out their feelings about social dilemmas with their parents. So, they naturally turn to the next available source of succour, which invariably involves online interactions.
Many human resource professionals bemoan the lack of “soft skills” among today’s new recruits. The candidates have the requisite degrees and technical understanding, but when it comes to articulating their thoughts, a number of them fumble, not necessarily for want of words, but due to a lack of exposure to diverse social situations. And, soft skills cannot necessarily be coached. It is hard to recreate the spontaneity, unpredictability and diversity of actual day-to-day social interactions from greeting the vegetable vendor to conversing with the bank cashier to asking a policeman for directions.
Of course, abandoning devices is not the message here. While acknowledging how dependent we are on them, Prof. Turkle asks us to use them more mindfully. Even as we enjoy the conveniences of online shopping and texting our children at all hours, we need to realize that we can choose how to use our devices. Instead of becoming slaves to our phones, we can exercise our right to not bring them to dinner. We can create device-free times and spaces where we can have extended, old-fashioned conversations even if they involve unpleasant emotions. Perhaps, if we make a concerted effort to interact with our family and friends in person more often, we will not only enrich our lives but also preserve our humanity.
Aruna Sankaranarayanan is director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties in Bengaluru and Chennai.