Social Skills: How Technology Changes Humans

How has technology been affecting your social skills? Some say we’re diminishing our abilities to interact well because we rely on virtual communication too much. No one has the answer, of course, but it’s worth considering.

The key to differentiation in all fields—from engineering to law, from management to medicine—lies in our ability to socially interact with others. Those who will be hired, retained and are capable of flourishing in almost all professions are people best skilled at forming emotional bonds, persuading others and making judgments.

In the late 1950s, management expert Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe valued skills in an increasingly information-based economy. More than 50 years later, our most valuable people can be dubbed “relationship workers.”

No matter your job or field, you must excel at being a person. Unfortunately, a focus on technology and skills acquisition has caused many of our interpersonal abilities to atrophy.

Technology Changes Us

We tend to over-rely on tech tools to communicate quickly and efficiently. We text or email instead of calling or meeting face-to-face. This does, indeed, save time, but it’s impossible for us to pick up on nonverbal cues—a critical component of building relationships.

If you cannot face another person, you’re deprived of noticing facial expressions, as well as subtle shifts in vocal tone, eye movement, posture, physical distance and other social signals. Spotting these cues quickly is crucial to responding appropriately.

In one social experiment, scientists gathered a group of sixth-graders in a camp for five days, without any screen access: no computers, tablets, cellphones, music players, games or TV. They wanted to measure the children’s ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues in others. After five days of solely face-to-face interaction, the students had become far more emotionally insightful.

American adults (ages 16 to 45) with access to at least two devices report 7.5 hours of screen time daily. Indonesians spend 9 hours a day and Filipinos just a few minutes less, so this is not an affluence-related phenomenon. Imagine what this does to our social sensitivity.

Nothing Beats Face-to-Face Contact

With digital communication, the quality of real human connection is weak. When two people talk face-to-face, their brains synchronize. This doesn’t happen when they’re back-to-back, so our faces are vital communication tools. Video communication provides only weak synchronization.

Reading one another and conversational turn-taking determine how well a group performs a wide range of tasks. The personal connection helps us become smarter and more capable. Teams that have met face-to-face at least once can thereafter work well virtually. Greater communication challenges occur with those who have never met in person.

When people get together, they naturally try to learn about each other and understand what others are thinking. Face-to-face conversations are an intense, fully engaging experience that builds overall mental abilities.

In the work I do coaching, I hear about miscommunication a lot. Some of it is due to technology challenges, and our assumptions that shared meanings are shared when they’re not.

What’s it been like for you? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.

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