The debate about technology’s impact on our ability to communicate effectively will likely continue for some time. Many people are convinced that social technology sets us up for misinterpretation and destroys all opportunity for subtlety in our messages. Others believe that our constant reliance on texting, email and social media is destroying the meaningfulness of our relationships and personal interactions. And there is clear evidence that many of the characteristics of today’s technology blunt human empathy.
There is no question that the convenience of our technological tools makes keeping in touch easier than ever. But is keeping in touch replacing touch? Are electronic connections replacing attachment? And are we defining “friend” in a completely different way?
Achieving Communication Balance
Our increasing reliance on electronic communications is not inherently bad. Recent research, however, suggests that some balance should be brought to bear. Studies show that youth who lack face-to-face interaction lose the ability to read other people’s emotions or recognize facial cues. Surveys on the use of smartphones show that we’re texting and using social media more, even during mealtimes and in the bedroom. And one study conducted by University of Michigan psychologist, Ethan Kross, found that social media use makes us lonelier and less social. The more we rely on technology to connect, it seems, the less connected we feel.
Of course, every new communications technology, from the printing press to the telephone, has been demonized. As Ericsson’s history of the telephone in Sweden states:
“The greatest fear, however, was that the telephone was in some way able to attract evil spirits, or at least thunder and lightning.”
People will always look for something to blame for worrisome trends and changing norms. As always, new tools and technologies are neither good nor bad, how we choose to use them determines their ultimate effect.
The Right Communications Mix
Ideally, we can benefit from the convenience and ubiquity of these most recent communications technologies without losing the value of more personal modes of communication. The following table offers one perspective on the respective value of electronic and verbal communication.
|Information Technology/E-Tools||Powerful Verbal Communications|
|Speaks to the head|
Quick and efficient
Impersonal and tone-deaf
Convinces with facts and analysis
Easy to send negative/angry messages
Broadcast to large groups
Provides background and updates
|Engages the heart|
Establishes mutual interests
Builds emotional/personal connections
Inspires with stories and examples
Addressing tough issues with courageous conversations
Strengthens teamwork and engagement
Builds involvement and ownership
Source: The Clemmer Group
Every form of communication has its benefits and trade-offs. And certain situations are better suited to one form or another. The research community offers some additional help when it comes to determining your own ideal balance between electronic and personal interactions. The hierarchy of richness depicted below suggests:
“…that the richer communication channels be used for those conversations that involve ambiguous issues or have potential for conflicts. Written communication is better suited to information sharing in a timely manner.”
Heirarchy of Richness
Source: Hierarchy of richness (Daft, Lengel, and Trevino; Connaughton and Daly; Poole and Zhang), cited in Lynne Siemens, The Balance between On-line and In-person Interactions
Bringing Your Best Communications Game
Whether you lean toward high-tech communication or prefer the complexity of high-touch interaction, being an effective communicator requires both. Just as you wouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, or a baseball glove to a football game; you can’t bring your best communications game to the table unless you select the right equipment.
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 Chicago Now. Social Technology Destroys Communication http://www.chicagonow.com/rogue-road/2014/04/social-technology-destroys-communication/
 Technology is Destroying the Quality of Human Interaction. https://thebottomline.as.ucsb.edu/2012/01/technology-is-destroying-the-quality-of-human-interaction
 P.J. Manney. Is Technology Destroying Empathy? (Op-Ed). http://www.livescience.com/51392-will-tech-bring-humanity-together-or-tear-it-apart.html
 Amy Morin. Is Technology Ruining Our Ability to Read Emotions? Study Says Yes http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/08/26/is-technology-ruining-our-ability-to-read-emotions-study-says-yes/
 Is Social Media Actually Making us Less Connected? http://mashable.com/2012/03/01/social-media-less-connected/#5o5nxB3zv8qm
 All the lonely Facebook friends: Study shows social media makes us MORE lonely and unhappy and LESS sociable http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2419419/All-lonely-Facebook-friends-Study-shows-social-media-makes-MORE-lonely-unhappy-LESS-sociable.html#ixzz3tqWcFm7h
 The Telephone is the instrument of the devil. http://www.ericssonhistory.com/communication/how-the-telephone-changed-the-world/The-telephone-is-the-instrument-of-the-devil/
 Jim Clemmer, Communication Confusion: Balancing Electronic and Human Connections. http://www.clemmergroup.com/blog/2015/11/19/communication-confusion-balancing-electronic-and-human-connections/
 Lynne Siemens, University of Victoria. The Balance between On-line and In-person Interactions: Methods for the Development of Digital Humanities Collaboration. http://www.digitalstudies.org/ojs/index.php/digital_studies/article/view/184/236