The Art of Communication

Perhaps that title was misleading. If you’re here for a lesson on how to better communicate in this world, I am no expert.

I recently started reading The Future of Feeling by Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips. It’s been sitting in my kindle for a while. Occasionally, I venture out of my fiction zone into a non-fiction title about once a year.

The book discusses emotions and communication; specifically, how the evolution of communication in our digital world affects the way we interact with one another and how those interactions are shaping the way we feel after digital interactions. It’s quite fascinating.

The book is written by a Millennial. Being one myself, it’s enjoyable to read the early chapters, where Phillips reminisces on growing up in a world alongside the internet. Like her, I too remember the days of coming home from school and logging into AIM Messenger to chat with classmates and, yes, even strangers. I was lucky in that I somehow never encountered anyone creepy. Most conversations were harmless school chatter. I even formed an online friendship that lasted maybe a year; a really long time in a young teenager’s world. Somehow, I honestly don’t remember how, I began an AIM conversation with a person in England. As far as I knew, she was a slightly older teenager who lived near London. She had made a website dedicated to Xena music videos and fan fiction. We would talk about the show and eventually got into conversations about our lives. It was exciting, speaking to this person on the other side of the world whom I’d never met in person. The thrill of this apparently private conversation, enabled through the magic of the internet, was incredible.

Over time, we ran out of things to talk about and we simply stopped chatting. Meanwhile, new forums popped up like MySpace. Live Journal. Then Facebook.

Anyway, The Future of Feeling analyzes how the increasing presence of digital or online communication is affecting the way we speak to one another, as well as how it affects the way we interpret communication and the mental after-effects of being engulfed in an online conversation.

A running theme of the book is technology’s effect on empathy. It discusses how online forums diminish our ability to empathize. The reasons are many. (We can’t see the other person, so we can’t read facial expressions and body language. We may use all caps or other special characters that have a particular insinuation, which people may or may not understand. Sarcasm is nearly impossible to read, especially among strangers.) It gives examples of how people go into online conversations knowing exactly what they want to say, how they’re going to say it, and how they set the other person in the conversation, or debate, up for failure. In doing so, by the end of the thread, discussion board, or whatever it is, the entire conversation is a heated argument where nobody seems to be listening to anybody and everyone is wrong. As Phillips says, “…as the more modern versions of social media…become obsessive parts of our every day lives…their magic of creating bridges is sometimes overpowered by their capacity to help us burn them.’”

The book also dives into the evolution of language and how that’s influenced by technology. With this fresh on my mind, I decided to pay more attention to how this was playing out in the real world with my students, who are in 5th grade. Now, I’m officially at an age where some of the things they reference go completely over my head. I feel like that meme of the middle-aged guy wearing a backwards cap carrying a skateboard trying to fit in among a hallway of high schoolers.

Anyway, the Friday before Halloween they were all super pumped for the weekend. Distance Learning is hard enough, so that morning I gave them some extra time at the beginning of our online class to talk. I was blown away not by how talkative they were (it was like mice chattering over the sound of pots and pans banging together) but by how little they were actually saying to one another. They were speaking in memes and catchphrases from video games. They would sometimes start to recount a story or event from their own life, then end it with another odd phrase. Maybe I’m simply too old to recognize it. After all, they are only ten years old. Still, there was no, “What are you doing this weekend?” or “What if you could grow dragon wings?” or anything like that. I heard a few “I miss you guys” which broke my heart, but the rest was like listening to some strange new language.

Of course, maybe that’s exactly what’s happening. I spend what’s probably the average amount of time on social media. Enough to know that language and the way people “speak” online is 100% changing and, as a result, changing how we speak in the real world. Especially when it comes to humor. However, when we step back and talk face to face, even over a computer screen, I wonder what this is doing to the way we communicate in real life.

I find a lot of discourse online these days overwhelming. Especially this year. Maybe because of Covid and being quarantined I had more time to look at things like social media. Even when I did, I’d have to put my phone away after a short time. Some of the debates taking place on various platforms were absurd. What might have started as a debate had morphed into a scary and misinformed argument where neither side seemed to listen to the other. Not always. Sometimes people seemed to actually be reading what the other person said, processed it, then responded.

This is a lot of what The Future of Feeling dives into. It asks about the importance of empathy, and if empathy is changing or –frighteningly— disappearing as we trend toward communicating more and more online.

I haven’t finished the book yet. I don’t know if it holds answers. But it does pose many possibilities, including using technology as a means to teach empathy in an increasingly isolated world. “Technology is a tool,” the book states more than once. “It only depends on how we use it.”

Technology is inescapable as our world moves forward. I’ll be interested to see how we as a species harness tech; hopefully for the betterment of the way we live our lives.

Meanwhile, *puts on backward cap for class* I’m going to go Google what Among Us is and figure out the names of those kids from BTS.

One comment

  1. This topic is interesting. I wish we could be futurists with the ability to predict where online communication is leading us. BTW, I used to believe that high school age people were the inventors of new vocabulary/expressions. Their need to exclude adults motivated their habit of using words the average adult, or at least their parents, wouldn’t comprehend. After my spouse spent two years as a middle-school counselor, I changed my mind. She would come home every afternoon, armed with expressions I never heard in my high school classroom or in the hallways. Thanks for stimulating my thoughts about this subject, Sam.


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