I’m reading The Time Traveler’s Guide To Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Among many of its fascinating elements is the concept that medieval folk lived in and for their communities. Virtually the entire population fell into one of three parts of the estate system: 'those who fight’ (such as knights), ‘those who pray’ (such as monks), and ‘those who work’ (such as villeins). Of course, much of the estate system - and life in general - was extremely harsh, but there were also some positive aspects. The community gave its people a sense of fraternity (how they treated each other), identify (how they related to each other), and purpose (how they supported each other). In all, the system influenced how they communicated with each other.
Yesterday, in The New York Times, I realized just how far away from that era we’ve come after reading The Flight From Conversation by Sherry Turkle. As a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. (and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other), she speaks about how technology has changed how we communicate, how we react and participate in relationships, and how we’ve learnt how (not) to be alone.
Don’t worry, she’s not telling us to ditch our devices. But she does make an eloquent case for recognizing that we’ve becoming confused about what true communications means.
"Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.
"Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, 'I am thinking about you.' Or even for saying, 'I love you.' But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.
When you think about it, it’s really becoming crazy, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how many interviews I do (either for client work or for a job) by e-mail. If I get them when I telephone (which is a big IF), I’m shocked at how many of them act like they've never spoken to an actual human being.
Last week, I spoke on Skype with a potential client – for presentation skills – but we never use the video component because she doesn’t want me to see her. Another client has commissioned a business writing course specifically for Twitter. Another client uses Wikiboard to conduct brainstorms with participants around the world. Not only do the participants never speak or talk to each other, their posts are all autonomous: they never refer to another person’s post. The senior leaders are nonplussed with the ideas, but more so, they’re confounded why their teams don’t seem to ‘own’ the ideas.
So, I’m not surprised when an opportunity arises to help a suburban Chicago high school teach inter-personal skills to ninth graders. Or when I get a request from a hotel chain in the Middle East to help its 20-something maids learn how to talk to customers. Or why the single most asked-for workshop is listening skills.
In short, the skill of being able to communicate effectively helps us learn how to be in relationships. It helps us learn who we are be seeing ourselves in the eyes of others. It helps us learn how to be content with being alone with ourselves.
I could go on, but Turkle is more eloquent and insightful. And I’m stopping because you should take a moment to read the article. As she writes in closing: “So I say, look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.”
Please, share with me your thoughts.