Technology has provided more ways for people to communicate than previous generations could have imagined, but one of the great ironies of our age is that we are speaking to each other less than ever.
A 2014 Gallup poll conducted in the US found that text messaging was the most popular form of communication for those aged 18 to 29. When major companies such as Coca Cola and Citigroup asked employees if they wanted to eliminate voice messages, the majority agreed.
Psychologist Sherry Turkle is concerned that with so much communication taking place through devices people are losing the art of conversation. Closely related to this is the question of what screen culture is doing to our listening skills.
The ability to listen to others and read emotions based on word choice, tone of voice, pitch and pace, are essential, not just for communication, but for empathy. This was highlighted by a recent study which found that “empathic accuracy” increased when subjects were exposed to voice-only communication, rather than a combination of voice and visual cues, such as facial expressions.
A Little More Conversation
The study by the Yale School of Management gauged if emotional and internal states were conveyed more effectively when the listener only had to focus on one sense. At first glance this study seems to have little connection with technology, but its findings about listening and empathy have important implications, especially for young people.
In her TEDx Talk on technology and empathy, Jacquelyn Quinones quoted from a 2011 study by the University of Michigan which found that 3 in 4 students showed 50% less empathy than 30 years ago. It’s no coincidence that the steepest decline in empathy occurred around 2001 when social media first emerged.
With less communication taking place through voice conversations, either in person or by phone, there’s a real risk that people are not developing the same sophisticated skills as past generations when it comes to interpreting other people’s emotional states through listening. This has led to a decline in emotional intelligence and empathy, both on and offline.
The finding that voice provides more accurate insights into how a person feels than voice and body-language combined, is surprising. The researchers claim that facial expressions are less reliable indicators of emotion because they can be manipulated by the speaker to mask his or her true emotions.
In the same way that people post images on social media to create a positive impression of their lives which may have little connection with reality, they are also very conscious of putting their “best face forward” in conversation.
There are a range of reasons, people attempt to hide how they’re feeling, many of which are a cause for empathy, such as fear or shame. It’s important for people to have the skills to see through the “masks” others often wear to form relationships based on compassion and understanding. When so much communication takes place via a screen, it becomes much harder to pick up on the subtle cues to emotional states that can be gleaned through voice. Who hasn’t had the experience of misinterpreting what someone meant based on a text message or email?
A Little Less Distraction
The other reason the researchers believe that emotional states were interpreted more accurately through voice-only communication was because the subjects were less distracted. Being able to focus only on the spoken words was beneficial when it came to identifying emotions. This finding is very relevant for a culture where multitasking has become so commonplace it’s perfectly acceptable for people to surf the internet or read emails while engaged in conversation. This reduces the ability to really focus on what others are saying.
Even Skype and FaceTime, which on the surface appear to enhance connections, may be less effective for creating empathy than an old-fashioned telephone conversation because the added stimulation may reduce concentration and perception, affecting the listener’s “empathic accuracy.”
It’s a curious fact that in an age of hyper-connection, isolation and loneliness continue to be serious problems. Disconnection manifests in a lack of empathy, a decline in politeness and open hostility in the form of racism and misogyny. The most extreme manifestation is terrorism.
Everyone is affected by screen culture, but it’s children who have the most to lose. When parents and kids are glued to devices, there are less conversations for children to listen to and learn from. It’s vital for children to develop the skills to listen to what people are saying, and more importantly, what they are not saying. The only way to learn how to “read between the lines” is through constant exposure and practice.
A little more conversation and a little less distraction can make the world a kinder and more compassionate place, put down the devices occasionally and really talk to the people in your life!