By Danielle Heuer
Up until recently, I thought of myself as too young to be nostalgic. But, I am really missing the way we used to connect to real people. Yep, I am sounding old. But, I have really been noticing how so many people are ignoring the world around them and instead staring down at their phones. In fact, I was recently at dinner with my family and observed another family nearby with the husband and wife on their devices the entire time. No one talked at all.
I can’t help but wonder how this device addiction has changed the world we live in. How is this lack of connecting with each other shaping our children’s’ communication skills, preparing them to be future leaders, and altering their perspectives of other people?
What is the online shaming and blaming doing to their ideas of how to treat one another? And the incessant chasing of likes, hearts, and emoticons – what is this doing to their self-worth? I was raised on “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” But, today the online world speaks its minds, regardless of how insensitive and mean.
It’s as if the devices have replaced the people. Have we forgotten that the devices are tethered to people? Would we really rather look at and talk to a screen than a real person? And if so, what are the effects of growing up tethered and connected?
Is it realistic to cut our online ties?
Entirely? Heck no! As an avid Pinterest pinner and online news junkie, I am not suggesting that we all go technology free – although we do try to enforce ‘No Tech Tuesdays’ in our house.
And, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the abundance of benefits there are to living in our online world – even extending beyond greater convenience and time savings. I never would have known that Springsteen tickets were going on sale, had an old friend not shared it on Facebook the night before. I also follow several online blogs and sites where I am inspired, educated, and humbled. I am grateful for my online coupons and love seeing pictures of my friends and family. I count Uber as the most brilliant app on my phone (next to Weight Watchers).
But at the same time, I sometimes wish my children got to grow up the way I did – with more imagination, more outdoors, more figuring out what to do when they are bored, more books, maybe even a giant encyclopedia to have to flip through, and definitely more talking to other people – especially their own family at dinner. I am saddened by the loss of real connections.
Does our device addiction really make us anti-social?
I’ve actually become uber aware of how these changes are playing out in everything we do and recently conducted my own social experiment to assess how pervasive this loss of connection really is.
I frequently travel for work and have noticed that nowadays when I board an airplane, everyone is looking at their phones. There was actually a time when people would smile at you, and say hi, even helping others get their luggage stowed. Yep, I’m definitely nostalgic.
On a recent trip, I counted 27 people on phones upon boarding the plane. Only one person fleetingly looked up at me, smiling. I quickly realized that the smile was not a welcome for me but rather a response to something this person had read on his phone. When I smiled back, this young man looked at me oddly, almost questioning how I could know what he just read.
When we connect, we grow and we learn
So my experimenting began. I decided I would make it a point to talk to people on this flight and follow along with what other passengers did on the flight home. I would compare the two experiences. On this particular flight to Atlanta, I put down my iPad and started a conversation with the gentleman seated next to me. He was returning home to Atlanta to visit family.
He ended up putting his iPad down too and we chatted for the entire flight. I learned that he is an epidemiologist researching a particular cancer gene, a national speaker, recently wrote his first book, restores old record players, and is a talented musician. Yes, I got all that!
And it was wonderful to connect and share stories.
But in addition to learning something about him, I ended up gathering some great information for a project I was working on related to publishing scientific research. This man’s stories were really helpful. He confirmed some of my research and provided perspective from his field.
He also ended up thanking me. I gave him something too. He shared how he is often nervous when speaking at conferences. I provided him with some public speaking tips and perspective on how his audience views his credibility. We both laughed on our way off the plane commenting on how much we both gained from talking to one another – and how rare that is anymore.
On the flight home the next day, I decided I would only speak if spoken to. Two hours later the plane landed and I recorded 3 times I made real eye contact with someone (not counting the flight attendant), one time the person behind me huffed when my 5-foot frame made it challenging for me to reach my luggage out of the overhead storage, numerous kicks to the back of my chair by the toddler behind me, a grunt from the shuttle bus driver while I got a perfect view of the top of 7 passengers’ heads while they looked down at their phones.
So, although I will not denounce technology, take away devices, or even forbid social media, I will encourage my children to make eye contact, to engage in real conversations, and to take advantage of the opportunities to really connect and learn from one another. We all have a story, but if we are too busy looking down at our phones, we may miss an opportunity to listen.
Check out http://www.everyvoiceeducates to learn about our multi-platform events for sharing stories and connecting to real people.
Danielle Heuer is co-founder of Every Voice Educates and a leadership and communications coach who helps Fortune 500 companies close performance gaps and inspire employees to own their development. She is also a Rutgers adjunct professor for the School of Communications and Information. Danielle is passionate about helping others find their voice, their passion, and ultimately their purpose.