Education · Op-Ed · Technology

An Op-Ed: Has technology killed the conversationalist?

*Note: This post was written May 18, 2016. 

As I sit here at the airport waiting on my second of three flights this month for work, I’m reminded of how dependent (or reliant) society is on technology. There are charging stations at every corner of the airport for travelers to stay fully charged while away from home, and there is Wi-Fi available to everyone throughout the airport as well as on most flights (when the Wi-Fi is working). Many passengers don’t even print out their boarding passes before their flights anymore, but instead rely on their smartphones for scan-able boarding passes. While waiting just over an hour and a half through the security checkpoint at O’Hare this morning, I was actually questioning the validity of those non-printed boarding passes. How do the TSA personnel physically write on those passes to make sure that person has been cleared through security?

Technology is also playing a key part outside the terminal. For example, while sitting here at my gate I noticed outside the window that a suitcase, which was supposed to be stowed away on a flight going to Charleston, SC, fell off the cargo truck and was laying on the tarmac under the walkway to the plane. It was over 20 minutes before someone came back to retrieve the suitcase. I would like to think that some technology notified the luggage handler of the missing suitcase, but then again wouldn’t we have NO missing bags if that were the case?

While waiting for the boarding call to begin, I noticed that many passengers – including myself – are on their personal technology devices. Laptops, smartphones, iPads and e-readers are in full usage all around the terminal. While video may have killed the radio star, has technology killed the conversationalist? What happened to participating in pleasant small talk with other passengers while waiting for a flight? I noticed a middle-aged man who had arrived at the gate very early waiting to board the plane. When another couple about his age sat down near him, he tried to strike up a conversation about how he is a widower traveling to Boston this weekend to see his daughter graduate from college with dual degrees. He was beaming, but they just looked at him and said some comment in a dismissive tone along the lines of, “Boy, that’s great. Congratulations.” Then they proceeded to have their own conversation. Now the widower is just sitting there looking out the window and at the passengers going by in the terminal. It was quite sad to witness the death of this conversation right before my own eyes. Even now, I know I rely heavily on my own technology to keep me connected to my family while I’m traveling, but I recognize that I need to spend more time talking to family and friends via phone or face-to-face to keep those lines of communication open.

As a professor of communication studies, I’m quite aware that the best form of communication, to make sure that both nonverbal and verbal communications are being accurately transmitted, is face-to-face communication. Electronic communication is, in my opinion, the least effective form of communication because it’s missing both non-verbal cues associated with body language as well as verbal cues like tone and inflection, as depicted in this illustration by Bill Warters of Creative Commons .

CommunicationModelDiagramWithout the appropriate channel of communication, how can you be sure your message is being transferred effectively? Can you recall a time when your lack of choosing the proper medium led you down a path of total miscommunication? While this is a lecture that I share with my students during the first week of my class, the lessons learned from this lecture carry well beyond the classroom.

Technology challenge: Today I challenge all my readers to take one moment out of the next week to try to strike up a conversation with someone outside your comfort zone. I’m not asking you to be “that guy” who starts talking to everyone at the grocery store, but maybe you’re on the train riding in to work and you realize that, instead of texting a family member, you actually pick up the phone to talk to them just to say hi.

While we know that technology has killed the art of correspondence, let’s not let it kill the art of being a conversationalist. Verbal, face-to-face communication is essential to the development of all mankind and is slowly becoming extinct. Do you think we can avoid adding the conversationalist to the endangered species list? Put down your technology and open your mouth – don’t let the art of conversation die.

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