“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:
Face time – also FaceTime voice call
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.
I have 3 jobs at the moment and by January it might be 4. I spend the vast majority of my time at work or rushing between jobs. My socialising time is limited at best and it’s forced me to make some decisions about whom I see on the 1 afternoon I have off in 2 weeks, or for the single evening I have until the end of the month. Upon reflection those decisions are quite interesting. Oh I know, this might not sound particularly radical –
“Well, obviously, Abi. We always have to make decisions about seeing people – we don’t see all the people all the time. This is a really stupid point.”
“Au contraire, dear reader. Au contraire.”
– because here is what I mean by making some decisions:
We all have obligation friends, or guilt friends. People who we’ve known for years and feel obliged to see. People who we like well enough, but we’ve cancelled on them for the last 3 arrangements we made so we really have to see them this time (but they’re really quite average company). People who we know don’t have many friends and rely on us much more than we do on them.
Relationship dynamics are rarely equal but when they are, those are inevitably the ones you cherish – those are the people to whom you give your only “me-time” evening in two months. Those are the people you decide not to cancel on when another shift comes up at work and you *really* need the money. Those are the people you choose.
But the others? Well…they don’t always make the cut. And life provides us with valid reasons and convenient excuses to put off those friends for another time, not limited to but including the old “I’m just really bad at keeping in touch with people”. And you know what? We all do it. It’s not so bad and we shouldn’t feel too guilty about it.
We place a lot of expectation on people, on ourselves. But we change a lot. We change at different rates, through different experiences. As a species we’re driven to progress and it is what sets us apart – it is what makes us so fascinating, this striving for progress and change. Yet we cling on to constants as anchors – why? To allow us to know who we are? To measure ourselves by? We make our friends and family like the Mars bar – it hasn’t changed as a product since its release in 1932, so has become a yardstick of the economy. Our friends are supposed to tell us who we are, either verbally reminding us when we forget, or subconsciously reminding us by being there and allowing us to see for ourselves.
Some say that friends are the family you choose. but you can’t shake your family even if you’d like to and sometimes you really would like to. But the thing with friends is that you don’t have the enforced bond of blood to keep you together. That said, for lots of people in their families, that’s not enough either and people do stop speaking, seeing each other only once a year at Christmas, or not at all.
Because we do change. Undeniably, as people, as a species, we change. We fear it and yet we need it. And because we fear change, we fight it. We are quite simply not programmed to remain stagnant. But is that a good way to be and does that make anyone happy?
Friendships are not so different from romantic relationships: a good friendship requires a lot of the same components – trust, mutual respect, honesty, time, love, compatibility and the shared desire to both be part of the relationship with one another. But although we accept that we make romantic mistakes, we seem to find it much harder to accept that sometimes we make friendship mistakes. We’re not expected to hold on to every boyfriend or girlfriend we’ve ever split up from, but there is something inside us that insists we must maintain our dying friendships and keep them going, even if they’re failing. We make excuses for our friends repeatedly because we just don’t want to let them go. And we shouldn’t always let them go – some friendships go through rough patches and need a bit of time or space or extra effort. Some friendships have the clout of a shared history, if not the connection of shared interests, humour or personality traits. But some friendships simply cannot last through so much change, even with all that effort and ultimately it’s because you don’t really want or don’t need them to. Sometimes we outgrow each other or we weren’t really right in the first place. It’s sad, like breakups are sad, but we move on, get over people and find new friends. When we allow those friendships to float away, we survive.
As we get older we have less free time and more routines to stick to. This means the social circle shrinks – you have fewer obligation/guilt friends because you’re probably both too busy to feel obliged to see each other. My brother of 15 appears to have an endless list of people who adore him (he is especially popular though so he might be an unfair example – don’t feel too bad. We’re all simultaneously baffled, in awe of, and slightly sickened by him) and he has all the time in the world to give to them. He rotates, he flits, he is a social butterfly (sorry younger brother – there isn’t a more masculine version of that metaphor. A bear maybe. A social bear? It just doesn’t give the same image. I mean, bears don’t really flit do they? A social bear would trample on everything. No, a gentle social butterfly you shall remain, younger brother.) My parents have a much smaller number of people they see, individually or as a couple. I am somewhere in the middle. It’s just a natural progression as our lives have more unavoidable responsibilities and commitments.
And yes, of course some people are genuinely disorganised or never have a working phone, or remain stubbornly without one. And sometimes it really is difficult to make time for the people you care about because we can’t do everything. We cannot be everything to everyone. We have to accept that we must make choices, especially when time is precious. Sometimes it will be made hard for us because the other party won’t let go – they might think they need you more than you need them and that is always going to be hard. And sometimes it will be easy because without anything being spoken, you’ll both just accept it and let go. You’ll drift apart and that will be it. And you both know it’s OK to let that happen. No break up is better dragged out.
I don’t believe it is that difficult to keep in touch with your friends. I don’t believe it should generally be so much effort to speak to them. Your real friends. The ones you want to speak to. It’s only such a big effort when you’re reluctant to do so. It’s really hard to keep in touch with obligation friends. The real friends, even the ones far away whom you skype or you have to physically leave the country once a year to see for a few days, you find a way because you want to. Those are your “more equal” friends and it doesn’t feel so hard to keep in touch with them.