Is technology killing conversation?

4th January 2016

According to Ofcom’s 2015 Communications Market Report, we as Britons now spend an average of almost two hours a day on our smart phones (1 hr 54 minutes) in addition to an hour on laptops or PCs (1 hr 9 minutes), while we spend a whopping three hours and forty minutes in front of the television. When you consider that we also sleep for an average of six-and-a-half hours a night, it’s pretty sobering to think that we are now spending at least half of our lives either glued to some form of technology, or asleep. Wow!

It’s not surprising then that people are claiming that the art of conversation is dead. Quite frankly, who has time these days to talk?

But it hasn’t always been this way. The Victorian’s were the masters of polite conversation. The ability to converse fluently and confidently was considered a sign of good breeding. More importantly, conversation was thought to be a refined art form which needed to be practiced, savored and perfected. Sophia Johnson wrote in her Victorian Manual of Etiquette in 1873:

“Conversation is the chief employment in society, and it needs to be studied, because a good style in conversation is quite as essential, and as capable of culture, as a fine style in writing, and the art of saying pretty things is what gives to them their value.”

She went on: “The flowers of rhetoric are as beautiful as the flowers of the field and garden, but they require the aid of a skillful gardener to bring them to their highest strain of perfection.”

These days, sadly, conversation has taken a back seat to almost all other forms of communication. Now, such is our lack of confidence in our abilities to convey an idea succinctly, and with wit and intelligence, via spoken word, that we actually prefer to communicate by text or email. A recent study of US communication habits found that Americans would now much rather ‘type it’ than ‘say it’, sending and receiving five times as many texts as phone calls each day, and averaging 26 minutes texting each day while only six minutes was spent talking.

So why is it that we have all become so reliant on technology to do the talking for us? And what is it that we are we afraid of? Here are just some of the excuses we use:
1. Technology = speed and efficiency: In today’s ultra-high-speed world we want people to hear our news and we want them to hear it now. A 120 character text message or tweet is certainly an easy way to convey a message to a mass audience within seconds, and requires minimum input from the sender.
2. Conversations waste time: Time is money, particularly in the workplace, and many people believe that sending a quick email allows them to convey exactly what they need when they need it - no more and no less - without having to dilute their messaging with ‘time-wasting’ social niceties. Not only that, but a face-to-face or phone conversation is a two way thing which can easily become side-tracked and drift off onto other subject matters.
3. Lack of confidence to speak: Often, we’ve become so out of practice at picking up the phone and actually talking to people (even our friends) that we feel nervous of grabbing a handset and making contact. We hide behind our inhibitions and instead resort to sending a text, instant message or email instead.
4. Conversations put people on the spot: We’ve all been there, that awkward moment when you’re given a face-to-face proposition which you really don’t want to accept, but you can’t think quickly enough how to decline it without causing offence. Many people believe that emails and texts are a more controlled way to communicate, giving the recipient time to consider their options before committing to a reply. In truth, if we hadn’t all become so out of practice at conversing, we probably wouldn’t find ourselves in these awkward situations in the first place!

The biggest irony in all this is that despite our growing reliance on text, social media and email to communicate, the majority of us still actually prefer to receive information by good old-fashioned word of mouth (79 per cent of respondents to a recent survey said that they would rather receive information via a voicemail than a text). It seems then that we are increasingly hiding behind technology and using it as an excuse not to converse, despite the fact that deep down we still all love the sound of a human voice.

Ask yourself this: when was the last time you sat and chatted to someone without a television or computer screen on in the background, or without a phone in your pocket or on the table, waiting to divert your fickle attention in an instant with the flash of its screen or the beep of its incoming messages? When did you last step away from technology and allow your voice to be the only instrument doing the talking?

Maybe you feel that your lack of social confidence gives you the perfect excuse to hide behind a text message or email, or that you’re a ‘shy person’ and that therefore you find it hard to talk to other people. No excuse! I think it’s time that we all took a leaf out of the Victorians’ books and understood that conversation is an art form which takes practice and learning to perfect. No matter your social disposition, don’t use shyness or nervousness as an excuse not to talk – force yourself out of your comfort zone and really believe that with hard work and persistence you can grow your conversational ability. Just as we all have to learn to master new technology, so too, the art of conversation, must be learned and practiced before our confidence and our competence can grow.

So, my challenge to you today: put down your iPhone, switch off your computer, slow down a bit, and consciously opt for a spoken conversation rather than just a visual one.

About Cambridgeshire Elocution
Cambridgeshire Elocution is run by elocution coach Charlotte Grundy.
“I work with individuals who have lost confidence in their voice. My aim is to work with you to achieve your goals and communicate clearly, effectively and with confidence.”
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