TheLectern

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The antisocial network?

Smartphone in hand

Expect to see today's youth thumbing buttons on this device at any time, but almost never speaking into it. (Stock image)

Will this new generation of young people, who eschew telephone conversation in favor of texts, social media and the Internet, change as they enter the workforce?  Or will they simply change professional communication as we know it?

I somewhat addressed this question last August when I discussed my decision to transition from teaching using only words to a method that includes a significant visual component -- namely, PowerPoint slides.

Everyone over a certain age has noticed how talking over the telephone – as opposed to texting – is becoming rarer and rarer. When I was in the government 15 years ago, I made and received probably 20 calls a day. Now I probably make and receive 20 calls in two weeks (and, because I’m old-fashioned, most of those are ones I make, not ones I get.)

I found some interesting evidence on this issue from an unlikely source – the weekly Chinese English-language magazine Beijing Review. This publication recently ran an article called “The Antisocial Network” on the impact of texting and social media on the behavior of young people. My guess is that work similar to that discussed in this article has also been done in the United States – and, if anything, the consistency of the findings in two very different cultures actually is quite powerful.

The article reported on a poll by a big Chinese web portal on smartphone use by people under 35. The survey found that fully half the respondents preferred communicating on texting or social media sites than talking face to face! The article cited an example, apparently widely discussed online in China (where respect for parents and grandparents has historically been very high), in which “a grandfather arranged a dinner party for two grandchildren, who spent the entire evening staring at their phones. The old man became irritated and left before the meal ended.”

Note that since these were children, they didn’t even have the excuse that they needed to deal with messages or requests from their boss or subordinates.

I think – I guess I should say I fear – that the new technology is really changing, and in partly problematic ways, the way people interact with each other. I myself value the ability social media such as Facebook give to keep in touch in a low-cost way with lots of people; for example, you can spend 20 seconds writing a birthday greeting to a Facebook friend and make that person feel really nice. This is good.

But there is a role for deeper, more personal communication, and there is a role for the emotions, feelings, depth, and nuance that comes through face-to-face verbal communication. I fear that society will be worse-off if these skills and inclinations atrophy.

This also has implications for how politics and organizations work. Traditionally, speaking ability has been an important part of political skill -- think of the “Great Communicator” Ronald Reagan. Will those skills start counting for less and, if so, what implications does this have for politics?  What happens if employees tune out verbal messages from bosses?  Organizations use a lot of low-involvement written communication, such as memos, but will supervisors and managers need to get better at high-involvement visual communication?

Thoughts anybody? Write them down. (Don’t call me. :p )

Posted on Jan 11, 2013 at 12:09 PM


Reader comments

Mon, Jan 14, 2013

Perhaps China can adopt a "one-phone" policy per couple.

Sat, Jan 12, 2013 clay dc

One upside of texting and chatting is that you get a written record: good for accountability and memory. But there will always be a demand for the privacy and personal connection of face-to-face. And phones can be more convenient sometimes than typing in texts on tiny mobile keypads.

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 Alan

We're social animals but we don't actually like each other's company very much. Good fences make good neighbors. I don't think this is entirely generational, though- my guess is that smartphones are as addictive to a 40 yr old as a 14 yr old. The shift to emotionless communication will not hurt me, since I have no emotions, but the rarer compelling and personal communication becomes, the more valuable it will be.

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