The Digital Age and the Death of Communication Skills

I recently watched a hysterical yet frightening skit by the comedian Louis C K called Generation of Stupid Idiots. It could not have been more telling of the time that we live in, especially when dealing with the younger generations who have no basis of comparison for how much more challenging the most basic life functions used to be. We live in a day and age where everything is expected to happen instantly, if not sooner. At one point he mentions how we stare at our phones with contempt and impatience when it takes more than a second to complete a function. “Can you give it a second? It’s going to space. Give it a second to get back from space!” This addiction to technology has become so prevalent in our daily life that many of us have forgotten what it is like to do things the old fashioned way like having an actual conversation with another human being. While Louis does not go into detail on everything I am about to mention, he definitely lays the groundwork for the unintended side effects technology has had on society. Through my various endeavors, most relevantly as a hiring manager, I can attest firsthand to the fact that one of the most basic human functions, verbal communication, has become a lost art form.

Throughout our history we have made amazing technological advancements, and for most of that time those steps forward have come very incrementally. In the twenty-first century, it feels as if the movie The Terminator is more fact than fiction and we are not capable of adapting. For those of you who may not be familiar with the history of communication, and no I am not talking about the advent of Oprah or Geraldo, things were never quite as good as they are today. Yet for all of the societal progress we have made in communication, our words seem to be used less and less with each passing breakthrough.

If we go back to the beginning of mankind as we know it, the ways we were able to get our points across were painstaking ones at best. There was no commonly accepted form of verbal communication, and written communication was limited to cave paintings. That meant, to get your point across, you not only had to be able to play Pictionary like a Grand Master, but also have the power of persuasion on your side to convince someone to come to your cave. Only then could you finally begin the attempt at delivering your message. Rock carvings, or petroglyphs, took almost 20,000 years for our ancestors to attain, allowing for the cumbersome transfer of ideas. It was then another incredible 7,000 more years just to formulate our current system of writing. It was not until 1832 AD that our first long distance communication in the form of the telegraph was employed. From there, technology started to progress at an astonishing pace. We were blessed with the telephone for forty years, which went through a number of overhauls before becoming what we know it to be today — a technological dinosaur. Since the telephone, we have been given almost every imaginaeble mode of instant communication with the exception of teleportation — although I just read Chinese scientists might be proving me wrong as quickly as I write this.

It should stand to reason, that with all of the focus we as a society have placed on developing our communication infrastructure, we are communicating more frequently and effectively. Makes sense, right? From my personal and professional experience, nothing could actually be further from the truth. In fact, I would go so far as to say we are communicating far less than we ever did, at least in any type of meaningful way. That’s right, I said it. I do not count SnapChats, emoji conversations, tweets or text abbreviations as valid communication/conversations. I will not dispute that all of the above have become a necessary evil and a very convenient way for us to get things done in this modern world, but we have become over dependent on the ease and simplicity, which has in turn taken away the meaning and substance from our words.

There was once a time where we had to put in work to communicate, and never even thought twice about it. Simply being able to have that human contact justified all of the effort set forth. We went from having only landline telephones in our homes and offices that required both parties to be in there requisite places at the same time. The amount of planning that went into making conversations happen would never happen today. We were finally freed of that bondage with the invention and mainstream integration of the beeper. Now, one party could be out and about yet still know that someone was trying to get in contact with them. Sure, this often times meant carrying around a pocket full of change, driving around aimlessly in search of a functional payphone and the nervous twinge of despair with every passing minute that the person looking for you might no longer be at the number they paged you from, thus opening the door to a potentially endless round of beeper tag. Next came cellphones and smartphones, and I will not belabor that point; only stress that over the last twenty years or so technology has advanced at such a rapid pace compared to other periods in our existence that I believe we as humans have not been able to internalize and effectively adapt to that technological evolution.

Growing up, the mechanics of having a conversation were far different than they are today. For starters, we only had that landline telephone I spoke about earlier, and you needed to battle everyone else in the house for time on it. There was no other option available to allow you to make an instant connection with another person, and for that reason telephone time was relished. As such there were still strict rules that applied to telephone usage; especially at dinnertime, which was reserved for family conversation and personal interaction.

Fast forward to today and I cannot remember the last time I saw the same dynamic at a dinner table, whether at home or out on the town. I can be part of the problem myself by checking emails or sending texts at the dinner table. I may not always catch myself until I look around the room and realize how ridiculous everyone else looks doing just the same. There was a time my wife and I were at a local restaurant and there was a family sitting across from us; a mother father and their three teenage kids. “I guess you’re not so bad after all,” was her comment that caused me to look up from my phone and follow her gaze to that table. Every single person had a phone, tablet or personal gaming device in his or her hands. So engrossed in what they were doing, not a word was spoken amongst them the entire evening. To be honest, I don’t even remember them speaking to the waiter, but they must have because eventually the distraction of food arrived. Even then, the electronic devices were only partially tabled.

The next time you are out at a restaurant humor me and take a careful look around the room. You may find a couple on a romantic date, (hopefully not a first) who only look up from their phones to show their partner something they were looking at on their own phone. Or someone else taking selfies and posting them on social media while their counterpart anxiously looks, likes and reposts them with comments. You may even find a couple having a text message conversation with each other. Why that happens is beyond me, but yes, I have seen it all. We have shifted to a place where we do not actually live in the moment and enjoy the experience and the companionship, all because we are perpetually distracted. Our electronic devices are a distraction from our other electronic devices. This is an unhealthy evolution of how we coexist and interact that will ultimately lead to the loss of one of our race’s most important abilities. We need to verbalize ourselves in order to survive.

In the professional world this lack of verbalization is becoming an increasing challenge, particularly as it relates to hiring and training associates. Many large firms now use a candidate-screening tool known as a one-way video interview. This allows the candidate to sit in front of a webcam and answer a series of prerecorded questions on their own time while also allowing the recruiters to increase the applicant pool without having to commit physical resources to weeding through the good from the bad. This type of technology is an example of the sword that can cut both ways. It allows for the segment of the population who is codependent on technology and lacks a desire for human interaction to shine in their comfort zone while possibly excluding more qualified candidates who do not adapt well to technology. I cannot count how many times an applicant has shown up so well on video that we thought they would be a sure hire, only to have them show up in person as a shell of their prior video majesty. There is a huge difference when you do not get a time delay to respond, have to maintain eye contact, and exhibit social skills. The reality of the business world is that most positions still require human interaction, whether it be with coworkers, customers, supervisors or subordinates. The weaker your communication skills are, the harder it will be for you to perform effectively, and the less likely you are to be hired.

I hope you think about everything I just said and try to incorporate it in your daily lives, I truly mean that — the next time your cell phone rings and you send it to voicemail, only to respond with a text message immediately after. The next time you catch yourself writing or typing a professional or formal communication using commonly accepted text message abbreviations. The next time you choose to order take-out online instead of picking up the telephone. These are all opportunities to reflect on the art form of communication and human interaction, as well as our conscious decisions to opt for or against it. Technology is here to enhance our lives, not to take control of them. It only has as much power over you as you allow it to.

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