The Demise of Social Skills

My job takes me on the road quite a bit, and, over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to, and even started to enjoy, spending my evenings alone. I eat dinner in a restaurant alone, and sit in my hotel room alone, sometimes working, sometimes doing personal chores. I enjoy the time to catch up on reading, and writing.

But I also enjoy observing other people while I’m out for dinner. And I’ve noticed a trend that has sparked this article. It started a few months back while I was waiting for a table at a popular restaurant. There I was, in the waiting area of this restaurant, along with twenty or so other people waiting for tables. Most, if not all, of these people, where in groups ranging from two to five people. However, instead of chatting amongst themselves, the majority of these people where staring at their phones. Perhaps they were reading, or posting on Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps they were texting other friends who weren’t with them. Perhaps they were surfing the net, or playing games.

While all of these things are fine, I was reminded of a scene in the movie Wall-e in which the residents of this space ship had learned to communicate with other people strictly through holographic screens which floated in front of them. They even used these screens to chat with people who, little did they know, where right next to them. They had lost all knowledge of the world around them.

Since that night, I have seen this same, or similar, scenarios being played out by people time and time again. In the most recent case, I was at another restaurant, and I was watching a nearby table containing a party of six people, four of whom where staring at their phones. On another occasion, I observed a couple, at dinner together, both of whom were using their phones extensively.

As a society, are we losing our ability to interact with people on a face to face basis? And, if we are, is that a bad thing? I look at our high school and college students today, and see a generation that is being defined by their devices. The next generation is not only learning to socialize through devices, but they are losing the ability so spell correctly, use correct grammar, or even use punctuation properly. Instant Message abbreviations have replaced complete words, not only in text messages, but throughout online forums, emails, and even articles.

Of course, some might argue that all languages evolve over time, and the most important thing is that the writer is understood by his or her audience. And, let’s face it, this younger generation has no problem reading each other’s poorly written communications. And, as long as the message is conveyed correctly, is it really that important that traditional writing skills are being abandoned? After all, hasn’t there always been a communication gap between generations? When I was young, my parents complained of the unintelligible language of my generation. But we understood each other.

I recently heard on KNX News radio that a study found the following increasing trend: Young people, after a job interview, would send a text message to the interviewer, often in abbreviated language, thanking them for the interview. The text might be something like this: “Thx 4 the chat”. The study found that managers who had received such text messages found them to be annoying. That doesn’t surprise me. Most managers are from a generation that values correct spelling and punctuation. Personally, I find it annoying to have to read a sentence several times trying to decipher the meaning. This is very common on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

I have to admit, I’d rather send an email, than pick up the phone and call someone. My wife is just the opposite. She hates typing an email. She would much rather have a phone conversation. I find that, in business, email is better, as you have documentation of what was said. In today’s business environment, we don’t need people denying what they said. We don’t have that issue with email.

However, at the same time, I miss the days when spelling, grammar, and punctuation were important. Even when I send a text message, I spell out full words, and include punctuation. I think that helps make the message clear. Am I showing my age? What do you think?

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10 Responses to The Demise of Social Skills

  1. Roland says:

    Michael, I could not agree more! My kids (both over 21 and out of the house) sent me a text from time to time, rather than call. I usually call them back because I still want that interaction. I have friends who also prefer to send several text messages rather than call. I still scratch my head and ask “why?” It takes much longer to type several text messages than to dial and actually talk to someone.

    Another down side of a text message (and email for that matter) is that the reader does not know where the emphasis belongs. This was made very clear in college one day. On the chalkboard were the following words: “I didn’t say he stole the money.” Seven people were directed to read the sentence outloud with the emphasis on a different word each time. The sentence meant seven different things.

    How do you convey that in a text message?

    thanks for sharing

    • Jamie Oswald says:

      *I* didn’t say he stole the money.

      I *didn’t* say he stole the money.

      I didn’t *say* he stole the money.

      I didn’t say *he* stole the money.

      I didn’t say he *stole* the money.

      I didn’t say he stole *the* money.

      I didn’t say he stole the *money*.

      🙂

      Really, though, I think this is kind of an issue, but it is also evolution. I remember the last time I interviewed for a job I got made fun of for putting an actual thank you note in the snail mail, so the times, they are a-changin’. I personally would much rather text or email than call, because it is faster. I don’t have to wait for the pick up, exchange pleasantries, awkwardly have the meat of the conversation, then exchange more pleasantries. I can say “Dinner at Rocks at 7?” and the person can say “Y” back. I don’t like the trend of people texting to each other rather than talking, but as long as everyone at the table is doing it, who cares? I think it is important for people to remember that you might want to tell someone you have to hammer on your phone for a minute before just starting in, and you should only be engaged with it if the other person isn’t engaging you.

  2. Roland says:

    Jamie, I can certainly agree with the idea of a one text conversation like “. I can say “Dinner at Rocks at 7?” and the person can say “Y” back” is acceptable, and to be honest, I will do that myself. I guess my biggest issue is a “conversation” that takes 5, 6 or more texts. In my opinion, at that point, I prefer the phone. 🙂

  3. Dallas Marks says:

    Michael, not only is this true at restaurants, it was very noticeable (and unfortunate) at this week’s ASUG/SAP SAPPHIRE conference. Try networking with somebody when they are engrossed in their mobile device. Also, I think Tron: Legacy’s depiction of Kevin Flynn’s 20 years trapped in “the grid” is a metaphor for how fathers are depriving their children of the attention they need, pecking away at their phones and tables while perfection is “right in front of us all the time”. I’m as guilty as anyone. Enjoyed your writing.

  4. Naresh says:

    So true…I could no agree less…
    a few months back….we had this session at work on “How to best work in virtual teams” or something on those lines. It was said that since now a days we have to work a lot virtually it is important to know that we need to work differently compared to working with someone face to face…

    They asked for feedback at the end of the class and what I had to say was….the session was good but a few years down the lane we are all going to need a training that will say “How to best work in non-virtual teams” as very soon we are going to forget how to interact with someone face to face….

    Enjoyed the reading !!

  5. Tom Marion says:

    I agree Michael. My son, 25, showed me an email that he was copied on. It was from the COO (early 40’s) of the company where he works and was to a client. whenever u r ready. Even my son couldn’t believe that someone in this man’s position would send an email like that to a client.

  6. Michael – great post. I come from that generation of abbreviated texting and I have to say that sometimes it is great, and other times it is socially awkward.

    I’ve been out with friends and found myself irritated with those in the group that were more interested in their iPhone and iPad (yes, an iPad – who brings their iPad out to dinner??) at the restaurant then those in front of them. In fact, I no longer socialize in public with those individuals because I find it to be a waste of time.

    It seems that some are taking “staying connected” too their own detriment, neglecting those who are attempting to socialize in person rather than on the internet.

  7. Nikunj says:

    Hi Michael,
    Very interesting blog. I am glad you put it down. Even though I belong to this same generation of Facebook and Twitter , but still I always feel the need to connect with friends face to face. Due to this, lately it has been difficult for me to be friends with guys of my age as not all of them feel the same and its difficult to make a connect with them. I have all best of my friends almost 5-6 years younger to me.

  8. Dave Rathbun says:

    Hi, Michael, old blog post, but reminded me of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OINa46HeWg8

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