Monthly Archives: April 2014

Lost In Communication

 

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 “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw

“Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.” – Charles Dickens

 

I’m on my phone a lot. I’m on my computer a lot. I’m a writer – I use a lot of screens. I would say I’m fairly close to being a master of electronically communicated comedy. I’ve got the text shouting thing down pat. A well placed capitalised sentence can induce “Actually laughing on my own, in public” from my recipient.  Yeah that’s right. I’m good with the written word. And I can type super fast so I never miss a beat or a joke.

But what is this doing to us as human beings?  Is it healthy?

Well, all the evidence would suggest no. It isn’t. I say “all the evidence”…I really mean “my reactions to things”.

If, as many people do, you have an iPhone, I know I can contact you in the following ways:

Phone call

Face time – also FaceTime voice call

iMessage

Text message

Email

Whatsapp (probably)

Skype instant message or call

Facebook – wall post, tagging in a status or private message

Twitter – public post and DM

Viber message or call (though I don’t have it so that one might be difficult. But in a pinch, I could download it, check to see if you have it and then if the other 9742 ways didn’t work I COULD GET HOLD OF YOU THIS WAY. At the very least I could invite you to use it. That’s what a sane and reasonable human would do, right?)

Off the top of my head I have just listed 16 different ways to contact you. SIXTEEN. WHY DO WE NEED TO BE CONTACTABLE IN SIXTEEN DIFFERENT WAYS?!

I cannot convey strongly enough how much this freaks me out. And how much of a contributing factor I believe this technology and communications phenomenon is to the ever increasingly psychotic behaviour of people in the Western world.

 

I am not a patient human being. I’m just not. I do try to be, but naturally I’m impatient with anything from replies to messages and emails to adults understanding basic concepts. I don’t do well with slow people. I operate at a high speed and I expect others to keep up. I suspect I have been made much worse by the high speed and higher speed and higher higher speed internet that makes everything so easily available.

 

Inevitably this brings me to online dating. We get to know people through screens, via websites and messaging services. We want them to text after a date, not call. It used to be that we waited for a phone call. Now we don’t talk, we text. That is a severe communication reduction. I was once in a relationship where we texted all the time but never really said anything. It’s so easy to do that. It’s not easy to phone someone and then not say anything without quickly realising that something is wrong. As a generation, we have become inept at making phone calls when we should.  We have lost out on getting to know each other vocally when we aren’t face to face. Of course there are some people who have never been the type to talk on the phone, but more and more we don’t have conversation, we just chat.

 

It can be argued that people used to communicate through writing, so actually what we have is a throw-back situation to the days of writing letters.  Here’s why that is not true – letters take time, thought and care. Occasionally we may choose to write an email over which we spend a lot of time, but I believe that is quite rare.  When someone hand-writes a letter to me and I open it, that is all I see. That letter has been written without distraction. I know the letter has not been interspersed with Facebook and twitter and emails and other things. It has been crafted by hand for me to read. Similarly, I give it my full attention.  When an email is written it is probably one of many tabs open. There are 9 million other things you can do on that computer screen. It’s not the same and does not elicit the same response as a letter.

 

Now let’s talk about mental health. There’s a lot of debate about if mental illness is on the rise, or if we’re just less taboo about it than in previous years, so we’re more aware of it. I think it’s perhaps a bit of both. I also think that part of the reason for the increase in young people suffering from depression, is that we don’t have time to process anything anymore. Living in the age of technology is overwhelming.  We’re expected to act quickly on everything.  Things have to be done immediately, if not sooner. The brain is wonderful – fast moving, adaptable, fascinating. But conversely, we need time to process information and news and ideas.  We don’t have the ability to know things immediately.  Ironically, we are given the most time to learn and understand new things as children, when our brains are actually at their speediest.

 

We are fairly immune to emails now. I have been given the advice to make a phone call when applying for a job so my emailed application doesn’t just fade into the blur of so many others. If you want something done by someone, you should call the person or go and see them – emails are much easier to ignore because we don’t see them as important. We are desensitised to them.

I still like to receive phone calls and talk to people. There are already people who are more comfortable with screens than humans, and seek refuge behind their computers.  Our real life, person to person communication is suffering because of our dependency on technology.  Look around you the next time you’re on a bus or tube or train. How many people are on phones or electronic devices? Are we even more uncomfortable with making eye contact with strangers than we used to be?  Our basic receptors to people are not the same as they used to be.

 

There are positives of course – the wealth of information we can access, the widespread capability of the news and being able to skype or facetime with a relative or friend across the world. Like magic. Technology in itself is neither good nor bad – it is neutral, but we don’t only use it for good. We replace the validation and understanding we crave from the people closest to us with selfies, Facebook likes, retweets. We mistake these things for popularity. We mistake these things for people caring about us and we mistake the tiny gesture of a click for giving attention. We are simultaneously much more callous and more fragile now – we forget that behind each screen is an actual person just like us, and our relationships are suffering.

I do believe that our heavy reliance on technology and the fast pace at which we insist on moving is psychologically damaging. Nervous breakdowns, stress, depression and anxiety are all apparently far more common now than they were, say, fifty years ago.  Although public perception and understanding of these conditions is part of it, there is no smoke without fire. The fire here, in my view, is technology. So goodbye conversation. It was nice knowing you.

Get up, work, get sexually harassed on my way home. Just another normal day.

 

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While walking the 10 minutes from work to the station today, a man began following me. At first, I didn’t notice he was talking to me. Why would I? I was on my own. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be talking to me.

I realised I was being spoken to and ignored it.
“Excuse me. Hello? Can I talk to you for a second? Hello? Excuse me. Darlin can I talk to you? Stop and talk to me for a second.”
No. I don’t want to talk to you. Don’t call me darlin. You can’t talk to me. I don’t want to stop for a number of reasons. I’m tutoring tonight so I have very little time anyway and even if I weren’t I wouldn’t want to talk to you. Please take the hint. Please stop. Please don’t follow me any further.
Then I felt a hand on my arm.
I turned around and looked at the man standing too close, violating my personal space and holding on to my arm.  Too tight.
“I want to talk to you.”
This, a little menacing.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said. “I don’t want to talk to you. Please let go of my arm. Now.”
He squeezed a bit tighter. I looked over his shoulder as if there was someone there. He turned away to look too and I pulled my arm free and began walking again.
“Hey!” He yelled, obviously affronted that he’d fallen for a child’s trick. Pissed off with himself that he’d been outsmarted by a woman. He decided to try a different tack.
“You want to come work for me?”
Erm. What? No. Aside from anything else, I’m quite clearly on my way home from work. And I don’t want whatever work is on offer – I somehow doubt he wants me to write for him and I strongly suspect he means prostitution. Funnily enough, that’s not my dream job but thanks for the offer.
“Why don’t you wanna talk me? Come on! Just talk to me!”
I continued walking, torn between wishing myself into the station already and questioning whether that is the safest option. What if he follows me in there? Then I’m trapped. I’m in central London. Where are all the people? Why is there no one else around? Why on earth did I wear heels?
I kept walking, confident steps. Head up, remain calm, do not panic.
I am not a paranoid person. I like people. I like new people. I do not shy away from strangers and I talk to pretty much anyone. Every instinct I have is screaming “DANGER” at me. This is not a nice man. This man is not leaving. He is not listening. He is still following me.
“I got some work for you darlin. Just stop and talk to me. Ain’t you gonna tell me your name?”
I shook my head and kept walking.
He made for my arm again, but this time I’m wise to it and side stepped him. His finger tips brushed my sleeve.
“Bitch!” He hissed at me.
I finally, finally see a person coming towards me, another man with headphones in. I make eye contact. I let the fear in my head show on my face for the first time and try to communicate one word to this man a few feet away from me.
“Help”
I angled myself towards this man. He saw, took out a headphone and I began to speak incredibly fast.
“Hi, this man won’t leave me alone. Please will you talk to me for a moment? I know you don’t know me. I just need you to stand and talk to me just for a minute please?”
He was calm and immediately put himself between the other man and me.
He asked
“Has this man been following you?”
“Yes”
I replied.
The man who has definitely been following me makes an ugly face and immediately says.
“I ain’t been following you. What you talking about you stupid bitch, what the fuck are you talking about? I ain’t following you! Bitch!”
At last he walks away, snippets of insults drifting back to me on the wind.
The man who I have stopped on the street asked me again if he had been following me and how far/long for. He asked me if I knew him, if I had seen him before and repeatedly checked that I was ok. He then told me he’s a policeman. I couldn’t quite believe the one person I’d found to stop was a policeman. He showed me his ID and asked me if I wanted him to walk me to the station.
I am not a jittery person. I don’t believe in living a life in fear. I don’t believe in walking around London feeling afraid of all the bad things that could happen. I accepted his offer because I am also not an idiot and at this point, I was afraid. It’s hard to run in heels, even chunky ones that aren’t that high.
We chatted on the way to the station and he made me feel much calmer. I wasn’t crying or hysterical or anything like that. I was slightly shaky from adrenaline and my stomach felt weird. He made sure the other guy was a way ahead of us and not in the station. I thanked him profusely and left.
I am writing this on my tube journey home. I am not wearing anything particularly provocative – a black smart skirt that stops just above my knees, an office smart, green top that is not tight, a scarf, tights, a jacket – and even if I were, I wouldn’t hold that as an excuse.
I love the fact that strangers talk to each other sometimes. But there is something about the way that some people approach others that lacks even the most basic respect. It might be a misogyny thing, I can’t say for certain. I know I’ve never made a man feel unsafe or violated. The most threatening thing I’ve ever said when initiating conversation with a stranger is “Sorry, I know this is probably weird but I wanted to tell you, you’ve got lovely eyes”. I have to say, the rare, lovely and smile-inducing occasions that I do receive a compliment from a stranger pale in comparison to the number of times I’ve been followed, cat called, harassed, touched inappropriately.
That’s not OK whatever your gender, whatever mine.
If I say I don’t want to talk to you, back off. Listen to what I’m saying. The answer is no. I shouldn’t have to say it more than once. I don’t need or want convincing. This isn’t a game. I am not presenting a challenge for you to wear me down. Don’t touch me. I shouldn’t have to break free from your grip. I shouldn’t ever have to feel afraid. I am a human being just like you. I shouldn’t feel like I need to write this to feel better this evening.
Perspective time: I wasn’t molested, or raped or hurt beyond a squeeze to my arm which may bruise. This won’t psychologically damage me. By tomorrow morning I will be fine (except if my arm bruises I’ll be peeved for a few days).
But what if Matthew the policeman hadn’t been there? What if there hadn’t been anyone around? What if it had been a bit later or a bit darker or the guy had been even a bit angrier? What then?
When men make comments about the size of my breasts I give them shit back so they don’t do it again. It’s funny to watch if you’re not the man who just made that comment. Because I am not going to silently ignore the total lack of respect any more.  I don’t want to keep quiet and take it.  My grandma tells me “silence means assent”.  I do not want to give mine any more to that kind of treatment.
We are all human. We need to be better to each other. We need to make each other feel safe. We need more people like PC Matthew, who listen, who offer to turn around and go back the way they’ve come to make sure you’re safe. We need fewer people who harass and follow and intimidate and when those people start up, we need to speak out to show them that we are better than that.
If you find yourself being followed and it is difficult or impossible to run away:
  • Pick someone and speak to him or her directly.  People respond much more when it’s directed at them than when they are allowed to be a general passer-by.
  • Do not panic.
  • If you scream, use words – shout them loud and clear, something like “THIS MAN IS FOLLOWING ME, I DON’T KNOW HIM, HELP ME.”  Shout the situation, not just noise.
  • Do not be afraid of other people. Not everyone is like that. There are really good people out there, people you don’t know yet, who deserve to be trusted.
I am extremely grateful to PC Matthew for being in that place at that time, for being a policeman, for being kind and good and helping me.  I hope that anyone reading this would do what he did in that situation.