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Blog : The age of digital communication


The age of digital communication

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Helen Flint discusses the impact of today's technology on our interpersonal skills.

We've made huge advances in technology over the past century which have revolutionised the ways in which we're able to communicate, giving us numerous tools that we would never have imagined possible just twenty years ago. Paradoxically this technological revolution in how we communicate could ultimately end up having a detrimental effect on ourselves and future generations' ability to communicate using basic human skills i.e. face-to-face communication.

We have to remember that the telephone was only invented about 130 years ago. Now we have mobile phones that can not only make calls but they can take pictures, videos, send and receive email and surf the internet.

Technology means that everything is very immediate and things that may have taken much longer in the past can happen very quickly now. However, this takes away time and space to allow us to think and contemplate our decisions - this is not always a good thing. The Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 could have started a world war due to a slight miss communication and all it would have taken to set things in motion was a push of a button. This increased speed and immediacy of communication and the need to respond accordingly, also puts great pressure on us and in some cases can lead to stress.

Certainly the younger generation see digital communication as not only the way forward, but also all they have known. For example, someone I know who has two daughters aged 11 and 13 will happily text messages to each other in the same house! We know that over 58% of what we communicate is through body language and only 7% are the words - if that's the case, how much is being lost or miss-communicated when we communicate digitally and the opportunity to observe body language is removed. If the majority of our communication is done digitally in the future, how much of our human side might we lose - communication is a skill that is developed through practice as we grow.

I'm sure we've all witnessed a supposedly mature adult trying to settle an argument via text or email messages. This usually results in a negative email/text ping pong match. With this form of communication the physical and emotional barriers usually experienced in face-to-face contact are removed giving people a false sense of security to say things that they wouldn't necessarily say in person. This can be extremely damaging. It's harder to remove the written word, it can be re-visited and it's also open to miss-interpretation. It's much quicker and less damaging to resolve things in person, or at the very least via verbal contact instead of the written word. Another friend's children have experienced cyber-bullying and actually had friends terminate their friendships on Bebo. Luckily they kissed and made up in the playground later but this is potentially very hurtful and damaging for kids. Recently we hear in the media that a grown man announced he was terminating his relationship with his partner via a series of billboard advertisements! That's not a great example to set for our kids.

As the amount of face-to-face contact we have with each other reduces, the opportunity for misunderstanding and conflict increases. We will also gradually lose the practiced skills required to help us effectively deal with conflict. Maybe in the future we'll have some kind of on-line robotic mediation/intervention to help solve our disputes - but let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Last week Google announced that they had brought out a new thing called, 'Google Wave' which enables groups of people to communicate simultaneously on-line, in real time. It will even translate a foreign language into to that which is used by the rest of the group. Having used, 'Babel Fish' myself in rather tricky circumstances this could have some very interesting repercussions! Only recently a foreign student got sharp shrift from Hilary Clinton when the question he asked got slightly lost in translation and Hilary took great umbrage to it.

We obviously love the developments in technology, especially in terms of our own technical products, like our online training courses and our online appraisal system. However we see these as additions not replacements. We don't advocate having an appraisal completely via the internet; the face-to-face meeting is still the most important part! Human contact in all its forms is a great joy and nothing beats good old face-to-face communication - we must never lose this skill.

Do you have any examples of when digital communication has helped or hindered?

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