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Roots and Branches: The cost of convenience?

We have been having an ongoing conversation at the office about the seeming reduction of interpersonal communication skills among the younger generation. Younger generation is a fairly sweeping generalization since coworkers run the gamut from their 20s through 60s, but in general writing and speech skills seem to be declining in those we encounter. Most concerning is that speech and writing skills are integral to expression and communication of feelings and values.

Since our job is to assess the environmental conditions that may have factored into that decline, we began looking at what are the significant changes in this generation’s life compared to previous generations. Research led us to look at the explosion of information that young people are exposed to and their ever-increasing access to that information through technology.

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We too wondered about this generation’s dependence on technology and its influence on their speaking, listening, writing and communication skills. How has technology shaped their desire for instant and broader access to everything and everyone? Is there a cost for this convenience?

Technology has given youth and adults instant access to family, friends, data bases, experts, professionals, celebrities and politicians. While technology has increased access to information, there are few filters that help you sort through that information and help determine what is factual, truthful or meaningful. Is the person’s Facebook profile even close to who they really are? Male or female? Young or old? Truthful or dishonest? Victim or predator?

Previous generations relied on interpersonal interactions and communication to determine whether a friend was reliable, honest or trustworthy. Has technology been a barrier to the development of communication skills as well as the enhancement touted by high-tech businesses? Do texting, acronyms and emoticons convey the nuances of feelings and values that are the basis of communication?

While the breadth of information is increasing incrementally, the depth and richness of communication seems to be decreasing. I have seen kids texting each other while riding in the same car, or sharing the same bus seat. Some seem alienated by face-to-face conversation. They appear more comfortable looking at the cellphone screen than another person’s face or looking through the lens of their cellphone camera, rather than at the interaction occurring right in front of them.

Eye contact, facial and body language often lose their impact when viewed through hardware. Over time people come to rely on the hardware rather than understanding what a person is trying to communicate.

Just try asking a cellphone aficionado to turn off their phone and remove it from their person so you can have a face-to-face conversation. Often they appear uncomfortable without the device.

As with any technology it is up to the users, kids, parents, schools, employers and legislators to set the standards for when and how they can be used to increase the positive and decrease the negative impact. New technological advances are so rapid they often make the standards obsolete before they are even in place. No cellphone conversations in the car; instant blue tooth. No texting; on-board computers that speak to you in the car. Schools had rules that said phone calls will be filtered through the school office and used for emergencies only.

Interrupting the student, teacher and classroom diminished the value of what was being taught in the classroom. As texting and instant messaging become the norm, parent and child alike demand use of the instrument for any and every thought, regardless of significance. “Pick up milk, Just used the bathroom.” Information overload, TMI.

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That carries over into the workplace as well. Personal cellphones have decreased work productivity through increased interruptions, and the growing knee-jerk response that you check and reply to any and all calls instantly because anything said is important. You will respond 24/7. Kids keep their cellphones on all night, so they can instantly reply.

We set outside filters on technology to underscore what is valued. It appears that the older generation is the one out of step and no longer will be the ones setting the standards. We are the ones who must readjust our values to align with the younger generation. It is when those values seem contrary to that which has helped us succeed in life, long-term interpersonal relationships and the ability to communicate, that it is difficult to swallow.

I have had a love-hate relationship with technology. It has made me more efficient and effective. It has expanded my horizons. It has humbled me, baffled me and excited me. I have achieved a delicate balance of reaping the benefits without losing some of the values. We turn off the television, cellphones and computer at dinner and during family time.

We look our grandchildren in the eye, hold their hand or touch their shoulder when we want to communicate with them. They can see in our eyes tears of joy or sorrow, respond to the tone of our voice, the set of our shoulders and the warmth of our touch. My grandchildren are voracious readers, thanks to the Kindle. But who will write the books that will be read on the Kindle if writers aren’t able to communicate the depth of emotion through the written word?

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I watched the memorial service of Robert Shu Yasui on Saturday, broadcast on a live web stream from the Methodist Church in Williamsport, Pa. It was the first family funeral that I attended via the Internet. I wasn’t sure how it would translate. Funerals are designed to help the living grieve, to share the impact of a person’s life on family and society. I was not able to travel across the country to join the family, so this was the next-best thing.

I could see them vividly, hear their stories and be moved by the words and music of Amazing Grace. I could hear the emotion in their voice and read their body language. I couldn’t put my arm around them to offer comfort but after watching, I could express my feelings in writing or verbally using technology.

Perhaps I could have communicated better with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren if I tweeted 143 (I Love You) and added an emoticon for emphasis using the language with which they are so familiar. I am not sure what the symbol for pride is on the computer or cellphone. But I am sure they can teach me.

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