Reclaim the conversation

16 years ago, only 10% of the world’s population used cellphones. Compare this number to the 46% that owned cellphones by 2005, and the dramatic increase in cellphone ownership to 91% in 2013. Given these numbers it’s not surprising — but rather expected — that cellphones are completely transforming our culture. However, whether the presence of such cellphones is for the better when it comes to face-to-face communication is a question at the centre of many issues today. Little by little, technology has become an integral part of communication, with their advent making it both easier and more efficient to reach others. However, as smart-phones increasingly take the place of face-to-face communication, is their effect on society doing more harm than good?  


A correlation has been found between time spent on online interaction and social anxiety felt when individuals engage in physical interaction. Similarly, individuals report feeling that with increased time spent online, they are much less nervous to meet new people online than in person. Are these findings really that surprising? More time spent communicating with smartphones, leads to a loss of quality face to face time. The persona behind the screen can often be different to the actual person and it seems more people are turning to communicating behind the screens. However, by doing so, individuals fail to truly express themselves for who they really are, avoiding uncomfortable and undesired situations, instead opting to address them through their smartphones. As with all things in life, people grow when they find themselves in challenging situations and pushed beyond their comfort zone. Resorting to the smart phone to solve tricky things, leads to a lost opportunity for social and personal development. Rather it is important to share emotions in person with others to foster empathy and connections.  


If someone sent you a message with an emoji in it, are you able to truly understand how they are feeling? Emojis can express simple ideas, for example, a smiley face is likely to express happiness. These are universal ideas. When we have a conversation with others in the flesh, we are able to hold their eye contact, sense their tone of voice, movements and presence. All of these combine to help us truly understand the other person.  However, impersonal communication via the smartphone leads to a deficit in face to face interactions as individuals are unable to express body language, facial expressions, tone and voice through test message. Can you really express how you are feeling with the use of words on a page or emojis? It is highly unlikely.  


Conversation is the most human thing we do as a species, and is one of the things that differentiates us from other animals. Animals can use basic language, for example Kanzi, the chimp who used hand gestures and symbols to communicate. However, animal language lacks the complexity to express a wide variety of expressions, spontaneous conversation and grammar — a fundamental part of what is means to be human. For humans, face-to-face communication is about more than just expressing our feeling and thoughts, it is where empathy and intimacy are born. When we use our smartphones instead of engaging in face-to-face conversation we harm our interactions. 89% of Americans reported the presence of a phone during their last social interaction. Of this, 82% said the mere presence of a smartphone deteriorated the conversation. The presence of a smart phone leads to a decrease in quality discussion — as individuals discuss things they do not mind being interrupted from — and lost the empathetic connection that normally flourishes in social interaction. Simple activities such as having a morning coffee with someone with the smartphone on the table decreases the connection and emotional importance of what people are talking about.  


How to aim for harmony:  


Adopt the 7 minute Rule:

It is easy and common to end up in a conversation where people are both paying attention and not paying attention to others at the same time. This creates a situation where nobody is conversing about things that are significant and important, but rather engaging in trivial conversations they are happy to be distracted from. Moving in and out of conversations like this decreases connectedness to others as we miss out on the situations where empathy and intimacy thrive. Studies have found it takes 7 minutes to actually know whether a conversation is going to be interesting or not. However, when was the last time you truly devoted 7 minutes of your time to the conversation? The answer is you probably didn’t, we rarely give people 7 minutes of our time. At the first break in the conversation, rather than sticking with the conversation, we turn to our smartphones to fill the void. However, it is these lulls, hesitations and pauses in conversation that reveal ourselves most. After all, life and human moments are not a steady feed of information like Facebook, but rather involve different paces. So challenge yourself to give people 7 minutes of your attention, and listen to the pauses, you might surprise yourself with how interesting the conversation really is.  


Creating sacred spaces that are technology free:

Encouraging face-to-face conversation is crucial in the workplace and in all areas of life. Encouraging conversations between people increases the bottom line; employees perform better, are more collaborative, creative and productive within a company. It is important to encourage employees to disconnect from their phones and emails to encourage conversations and day-to-day wellbeing. It is more beneficial for the individuals and company itself, to build a healthy environment that fosters face-to-face conversation, as opposed to an environment where people feel a need to constantly reply to emails and be available 24/7.  


There is no denying that technology has an important role in society today. However, maybe your use of it is dominating all other aspects of your life that are crucial for flourishing. So try and take a moment to disconnect from the smartphone, and instead truly listen and be heard by those around you.  

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