Low tech solutions to communication problems

We’re obsessed with technology as a means to stay in touch.  Most of us are guilty of constantly checking our phones for status updates on Facebook or reading the latest tweets in our respective timelines.  Texting is seen as a legitimate way of communication, and sending a card to someone for their birthday has been replaced with a perfunctory “Happy Birthday” wall post.  All of this can be good, but the surprising price of all this “connectivity” is that we’re less in touch with the world than ever before.

I remember going to a local restaurant recently with my wife, child, and mother.  It’s one of the new franchised “sports bar” variety with craft beer, flash-fried wings and terribly constructed burgers.  Instead of giving us a buzzing pager (or heaven forbid, actually remembering who we were and our party name)*, we were asked for our cell phone number so we could get a text when the table was ready.  While waiting around for the table to clear, I looked around the waiting area to find nearly everyone staring at his or her respective mobile.  Two people were engaged in actual face to face conversation with eye contact.  This struck me as horribly wrong–these people were ostensibly at a restaurant to socialize with one another over a meal, and they chose to interact with their latest iToy.** Children were even using tablets as a means of entertaining themselves or as a virtual babysitter for the tired parents.

We are a society of screens, and it’s causing more communication problems than we could have ever expected.  This isn’t just an old fogie’s issue of not spelling words or using grammar correctly, it’s a matter of understanding the emotional context within a conversation or knowing how to react appropriately as someone makes a statement.  Our life behind screens is turning us into jaded, desensitized collections of ideas who have no problem engaging in ad hominem attacks on a cyber battleground.

The big problem with engaging in communication solely through a digital medium is emotional context.  Without eye contact, body language, and facial expressions to guide us, we are without a means to accurately assess whether our words have actually conveyed that which we wished to convey.  Moreover, the pervading fear is that we’ve turned others into nothing more than a collection of ideas floating through cyberspace.  When you take a person out of the real world and make them nothing more than an easily-labeled group of words it’s easier to attack them and say things you would normally see harm others tremendously in a face-to-face discussion.  It’s also causing what Steven Johnson referred to in his book “Everything Bad is Good For you” as “emotional autism” in society.  We are losing the ability our ancestors once had to correctly identify a person’s body language and facial expressions as a certain emotion and therefore require our TV programs to give us special music and dramatic close-ups to portray a particular feeling (See “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race” and more).

The legal sphere has learned to mistrust social networks for their ability to magically tank a client’s case just from careless use. One recent example of this can be found in the Snay/Gulliver Academy lawsuit debacle that flew to major media outlets like CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/02/us/facebook-post-costs-father/  Missteps like the above caused many attorneys, including myself, to advise clients take a social media hiatus during any litigation.  With all of these problems, is there a solution that brings us back together?

I think in many occasions, low tech is the best way to go when attempting to solve communication problems in one’s daily life.  Our phone calendars can be great things, but there’s a reason the desktop planner has existed for at least half a century in offices–large, paper visual representations are great and they don’t break down as easily.  My family had an issue with our calendars not being available to one another thanks to an iCal mishap, and it caused quite a bit of frustration between Mrs. Seaton and I when we could not plan events for business or social activities for fear of an overlap and no child care being available.  A $30 investment at Staples and half an hour’s planning and execution saw us buy a dry erase wall calendar and multicolored markers, then fill out our respective schedules for the next three months.  Now we have no problems knowing when our weeks are full, and when we need to plan for care in future situations we can do so.

Gaming is a great pastime, but it doesn’t give us real human interaction on many occasions–worse, depending on what medium one is using for games, it can keep you focused on the screen and not on the other person.  Try establishing a night in your family for board or card games; you’ll be engaging in conversation and even the friendly “smack talk” can be entertaining. You’ll be engaging as a group with a social activity that will keep you from the digital world, and that can be the best way for many families or friends to bond over a common experience.

There’s no need for technology to be completely abandoned–in many cases, a fusion of the two can yield great results.  I love my iDevices, but their communication and recording capabilities make them a no-no when I have to visit incarcerated clients.  Keeping track of notes taken with paper and pen was an extreme time-wasting hassle until I discovered Evernote’s ability to search handwritten documents for specific text.  Now I take document photos of every note page I write at the end of the day and save them to Evernote, eventually splitting them into notebooks as time permits.  Everything is available when necessary, and I can keep my attention on the client during meetings without the barrier of a laptop or tablet hindering our conversation.

One of the best solutions to capturing memories was presented to me by Mark Toorock, the founder of American Parkour: for one weekend, take only one picture and concentrate on observing things around you so much your memories of the weekend’s events improve.  I tried the challenge and found myself having a better chance at capturing those life events in my mind than a camera or Instagram account ever would.  The picture from that weekend, in case you’re wondering, was of my daughter.

Yes, I’m a sentimental, sappy dad like that.

Technology has the power to enhance or detract from our life, and excess use and dependence on the digital world can have a very lasting impact on our communication skills.  If you’re having problems talking with someone or figuring out a problem in your own life, don’t immediately reach for tech support–try something a little more old school.  You might be surprised at the result.

*Yes, I realize I sound unrealistic when I pine for people actually using a list or book and calling out the name of a party in a restaurant waiting area, and I’m quite consigned to the use of the pager for crowded establishments.  Having to look at one more text is just beyond my tolerance level, especially when I’m in public socializing with friends or colleagues.

**My sincerest apologies to Scott Greenfield for co-opting his use of the term “iToy.”

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