We don’t talk anymore

In Asian cities, this scene is played out increasingly. A family sitting down for a meal outside, and each member is focused on their mobile phones. Each may be communicating but not with each other. Some will recognize and acknowledge that we are doing the same too. We don’t talk to each other. Wait, you will say, we talk, through social media or messaging apps.

Oxford Dictionary defines ‘talk’ as ‘Speak in order to give information or express ideas or feelings; converse or communicate by spoken words.’

There is a big difference in real talking and social media or messaging app’s communicating.

In real talk, we listen to what is said, we pay attention to the other party, we take into consideration the facial and body language response of the other. We do it in a real-time manner, we don’t hide behind an online, and sometimes fake, persona.

When online, messages are often transactional. Yes, we can hold a meaningful discussion online but that is rather rare. We think nothing of writing a nasty remark and then disappear. Someone asks a question and we may respond immediately or tomorrow. The train of thought has left the station.

I attended a conference lately, and noted something. The value of conferences come not only in the content but in most cases, the networking opportunity. During one of the panel sessions, I noticed a young lady panelist. I was amazed with her poise and maturity. She spoke confidently and articulated her views clearly. She is a founder of a start-up. During the breaks, I spoke to her. She obviously knows her business well, but again, it is the poise and maturity that strikes me. She is comfortable speaking in front of a large audience, and does just as well talking to a stranger. I don’t know if she communicates well because she founded a start-up or if she founded a start-up because she has good communication skills and I don’t really care. If she hadn’t communicated well, she would have represented her company poorly, she wouldn’t have articulated her business and value proposition successfully.

Of course, start-ups aren’t the only profession to be in. However, in most major cities, and Singapore in particular, if you lack strong communications skills, you are going to be at a disadvantage. Unless your profession is one where you can sit in a corner by yourself and don’t have to talk to others, you are going to find it challenging to participate and grow. You can have wonderful ideas but if you cannot articulate it clearly to others, the chances of it taking hold are slim.

We are comfortable going online, buy products and services. You don’t really need to converse with anyone, unless you have feedback for them or have an issue. However, there are many important aspects that you have to talk. Going for an interview for a job, pitching a business idea to investors, selling a product to customers, negotiating for a better price, getting the blessing of your future in-laws to marry their daughter.

With the advent of machine intelligence, the value and ability to have a meaningful conversation is even more important. Robots and intelligent software will continue taking away jobs that do not require this skill. In a place like Singapore, where labor costs are high, the advancement of technology is even faster. In developing countries, an entire generation of jobs may get bypassed, just like how many countries find the mobile phones practically eliminated the deployment of landlines.

Technology is wonderful. It has enhanced our lives in many important ways. But it is meant to supplement, not supplant.

This thing about each focused on their mobile phone at a meal, it happens in my family too. We have noticed that and started taking small steps to minimize it. Someone will raise a topic that will trigger a conversation. We try to find out what’s happening in each others busy life. I got to know more about their friends or their sporting activities. I tell them what I learned recently, and they politely acknowledge. I ask them for their opinion. Just keep the conversation going.

My thought brought me back to an incident that I observed while having breakfast. An elderly couple brought their grandchild out. Within a minute of sitting down, out comes the mobile phone for the kid to play with. For many families with young children, the indispensable thing is often the mobile phone or tablet. It is the electronic babysitter. No wonder so many children grows up not knowing how to talk to people. My kids are grown up and fortunately, these electronic devices weren’t as pervasive when they were young. Perhaps I would have fallen into the same trap. Now, when I am fortunate to have grandchildren of my own, I must think hard of what to do instead of shoving the latest electronic babysitter in front of them. Maybe story telling. After all, when they are little, they don’t get bored over repetition.

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