Several years ago my 12-year-old niece had a phone conversation with her grandmother. After she hung up, she turned to her mother and said, “That was weird. I said something to Grandma, and she listened. Then she said something, and I listened. And we just went back and forth like that.”

Her mother responded with, “Dear, what you had was a conversation!”

“It was really different,” she replied.

To this young girl, the back and forth of conversational exchange and the tuned-in listening and responding was perceived as a foreign experience. This anecdote gives us reason to pause and question whether the world around us is evolving or devolving in communication. We must also question just how much we are being shaped and influenced by our communication forms. Marshall McLuhan, the leading prophet of the electronic age, stated that “the medium is the message.” My question is, “How deeply has the medium molded the messenger?” Are we becoming anatomical extensions of the technologies we employ to keep in touch? Are we beginning to behave just like these technologies?

Furthermore, are these modes of communication helping us to evolve into more effective communicators or hastening our devolvement into nothing more than “messengers” who send and “contacts” who receive?

Culturally and individually, we would do well to examine whether we are becoming more impatient in our communication with others. Are we becoming more self-centered, more clipped, bottom-line oriented, demanding and/or more dismissive in our communication? What role do the devices and technologies we use play in shaping our communication behaviors and attitudes?

Ask yourself if the modern mediums for communicating are helping you become a more patient communicator, a more understanding listener, or a more thoughtful responder. One clear impact of technologies upon our behavior is that they are eroding our ability as conversationalists and often neutralizing our desire to engage in conversation.

It’s funny to note that almost 200 years ago, Henry David Thoreau was lamenting the same thing—tech’s influence on communication—after telegraph wires spread across the countryside. Because people had to pay for each word, he felt they would necessarily reduce their communication to the bottom line. They could literally measure their words with money. He felt the art of conversation and human connectivity were in peril and that people would soon fall into a pattern of directing messages at one another instead of exchanging ideas that struck deeper chords.

In our day, our problem is more about the economies of time than of money. We have become impatient communicators with a stopwatch instead of a clock. We feel a perpetual and driving need to jump to conclusions about our problems without navigating the causes and effects. The technologies available to us are feeding our general inclination toward impatience, making real conversations harder and creating distance between speakers.

Arguably, the invention that blazed the trail for the current trend in communication arrived in 1971. PhoneMate introduced one of the first commercially viable answering machines, the Model 400. The unit weighed 10 pounds, could screen calls, and held up to 20 messages on a reel-to-reel tape. There was also an earphone enabling private message retrieval.

Its original intention was to ensure people would never miss a call. The unintended consequence was that people had their first opportunity to screen calls and avoid talk. They could now respond on their own timetable. People were literally off the hook for having to converse with a person on a matter in which they would rather not. If the other party also had an answering machine—and the caller had a good idea the person would be at work—they could simply choose to leave a message.

The temptation to avoid face-to-face discussion is powerful. Fast-forward to now, and we have texting, which has accelerated the messaging phenomenon into the dominant state of social intercourse. It’s where much of the traffic is flowing.

Modern communication sometimes feels like conversation, but the human exchange is missing, and connectivity is compromised when we message instead of talk face-to-face in order to save time.

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