I watch in wonder as four teenagers grab chairs around a table at a local café. They seem to be friends, or at least fond acquaintances, all joining together for a ten-day Birthright tour of Israel. I watch these boys from a balcony above, and I observe that immediately upon sitting down, three of the four boys at the table proceed to reach for their laptops. The fourth boy didn’t seem to have one with him and attached himself to his friend’s laptop. They immediately logged into their Facebook accounts and spent the remainder of their meal connecting to friends in their respective countries. I found out later that this was their first night in Israel, so they must have been telling their friends about their trip since arrival. I would have been okay with this had this activity lasted ten maybe fifteen minutes, but it lasted the entire time these boys sat at the café together.
At the next table sat a couple who appeared to be dating or even possibly engaged. The girl spent her entire time at the table looking at her Blackberry and oblivious to the gentleman sitting across from her. Nothing this poor man could say or do could sway her attention even one iota from her much more enticing technological device. For a while during the dinner, he too took out his Blackberry and did some texting of his own. It would have been nice had they been texting each other. Unfortunately, it is far more likely they were sitting directly across from each other, yet completely absorbed in their own world, texting other people. They finished their meal, paid the bill, left the table, and walked out of the café without her looking up once. I was amazed to see how she did this without tripping down the stairs on the way out.
Two completely different groups of people at a popular Israeli café, yet both demonstrated something in common. People have abandoned the art of face-to-face communication in favor of the presumably more exciting art of communicating over devices. It is sad to consider that if we keep going in this direction, the art of face-to face communication could become completely lost on the next generation. People will simply forget how to carry on a normal and basic conversation – for lack of practice.
Some of the older couples at the café still appeared to be communicating with each other, but for the younger crowd, many of them may not even have noticed if half of their dinner mates got up and left the table. I fear the loss of face-to-face communication skills, as there is almost nothing as healing and cathartic as a face-to-face discussion with a friend. A friend who physically shows you compassion and empathy through his/her facial expressions, eye contact and gestures, and provides important guidance and advice if need be. A friend who hears you out, so you come away feeling heard. This feeling deepens connection between people.
The act of sitting across from someone and sharing thoughts, ideas, and experiences about life is nourishment for the soul – yet it may just be gone in a few decades. In fact, museums in fifty to one hundred years may have a “human communication exhibit” in which they show how human communication has progressed throughout the ages. The centuries up to and including the twentieth century will be called, “The Era of Face-to-Face Communication.” The twenty first century will be dubbed, “The Era of Electronic Communication,” whereby people primarily communicate via computers, cell phones and the like. How sad will it be for future generations who, at the rate we are going, will likely lose the fine art of non-electronic communication. How will people do basic tasks such as interviewing, meeting in-laws for the first time, returning an item to a department store, or sitting at a table of strangers at a wedding? Maybe they won’t. Maybe all of these interactions will be converted to electronic ones and everything will happen through a device. Maybe you won’t need to have that first awkward meeting with your in-laws because you’ll just type a few friendly greetings on your iPad and attach a photo of yourself; Telemedicine, or the practice of having your medical exams done via a computer to a doctor who is many miles away, will replace traditional medicine, and interviewing for a job will be done via a video hook-up without you ever having to leave the confines of your home.
Living in America in 2012, this all still sounds a bit far-fetched. But maybe one day this will be a reality. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not belittling technological advancement. I know we all benefit tremendously from these advances in every area of our lives – from medicine to education to the day-to-day running of our homes. But if social networks are supposed to connect people, why are people feeling more alienated and lonely than ever before? In midst of all the electronic communicating we are engaged in, many of us come away dissatisfied and discontented. We crave the basic eye contact we once enjoyed with our good friends, the upturn of a smile, the warm embrace, the shoulder to cry on when things got tough, and the high-five or tender hug of congratulations when the news was good.
We all need to step back for a moment and assess the direction our lives are moving in. We need to ask ourselves that if in the midst of all this “connecting,” we have lost too much of the basic communication we need for our emotional health and well being. We need to turn off our Blackberries, iPads, iPhones and the like for a few moments and embrace the real comforts of face-to-face communication. We need to ask ourselves if we are letting too much fall by the wayside in our steady march towards the future.Shani Stein Ratzker
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