Monday, May 16, 2011

How A Class Discussion on Losing Friends Versus Lovers Led to a Technology Fast... And a New Idea

“I don’t really feel like any of my friendships are so deep that I'd feel that sad if I lost them.”

This comment came from one of my students in my Interpersonal Communication class last quarter.

Don't worry. The comment was in line with the day's lesson: Friendship and romantic relationships.

(I know, sounds like a mega-Oprah session, but we cover theory:  Knapp’s model of relationship development and dialectical tensions, to be exact.) 

I read a sidebar passage from an old Beebe and Beebe interpersonal communication textbook called, “Loss of a Friend Can Hurt More Than a Romantic Split.” The content discusses exactly what the title says.

After the reading, my class was quiet and seemingly introspective.

I broke the silence, “So... losing a friend versus learning a lover. What do we think? Does losing the friend really hurt more? How can that be?”

Still silence. Not typical for this class. So, I succumbed and shared:

"I lost a close friendship about five years ago. This friend's husband died, and then she started dating. Once she built her new life, we tried to hold things together, but we drifted apart. I really had to lick my wounds for a few weeks. I took walks by myself. I replayed our conversations in my mind. I let myself feel sad. It did feel like I was losing a significant other.”

Still silence. My students' faces appeared appropriately empathetic, though. 

Here's where a student piped up and made the comment that started this blog post. Other students nodded in their agreement.

I was shocked. My friends have been my lifeblood for years and the few losses of friends I've had have cut pretty deep.

Before I could inquire further, another student said, “Everything happens on text or Facebook. It’s short and it’s just like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ Then when you get together, you just do whatever you’re doing. It’s not like a lot of big talking about feelings.”

After the experience in that day's class, I was hardly surprised when I read a Chronicle of Higher Education article last week called “No Cell Phone? No Internet? So Much Less Stress".

I’d highly recommend that you read the article, but briefly, four higher academicians (one, ironically enough, from my own backyard, UW!) studied how students feel about their use of technology. The answers were not necessarily what one would expect:  The majority of students didn't love their own use of technology, citing that they lose time when stuck in the cyberspace vortex (I know Bejeweled Blitz from Facebook recently kept me up until 1 a.m. I am not proud!).

Another finding that struck me and gave me solace at the same time was students' recognition that their online contacts "don't feel real" when compared to face-to-face interactions. 

My own students' comments also make me wonder: When online interactions move "off line," how “real” and “deep” are they--particularly when the communication that precedes those interactions occurs in short bursts over Facebook, text, or Twitter? (Or Tumblr or Formspring, etc., etc. etc.)?

Off topic for a second:  I'm in my early 40‘s. Social media and technology are “additives” to my current relationships, and I was a latecomer to all of them (like we’re talking joining FB in April 2011).

I personally despise texting, though I realize to communicate with some friends and family members, I have to do it.

I just started on FB, but admittedly, it was a professional choice, not a personal one.

I'm writing a blog. I want my blog to connect with students. Students are on FB.

(Okay, yes, it is nice to see what family members and friends that I rarely-to-never see are doing--at times. But it still feels far more superficial than if we were to pick up the phone and have a real conversation. Though I guess FB could lead there. The question is, will it?).

I know myself: I need authentic connection.

Plus that, freaky as it may sound, I love the "unknowns" of a phone call. I don't think I really knew that until phone calling started to seem so "out".

I love not knowing what other side conversations will emerge in a conversation.

I love knowing that impromptu plans can be made while actually talking to another person.

I love hearing others' voices.

I love getting the straight story about a message through vocal cues--not having to scratch my head and then send four more text messages clarifying what I "think" the person said.

I have no intentions of giving up my phone habits and truly connecting with another person. Or using technology simply to determine when my next real conversation or face-to-face connection will occur.

Of course, my perception is not my students' perception.

I worry about that.

I worry about my students losing the overall art of verbal communication, say, for their ability to work a room... network schmooze mingle in unfamiliar situations

Case in point: When people are by themselves, how many do you see making eye contact with others, which can transform into some great impromptu conversations?

No, instead we (I'll include myself; I'm guilty now, too!) bury our faces in our phones--and likely start texting.

Essentially, I worry about how technology and social media is encouraging students to confidently and articulately find and craft their “multifaceted communication selves” by honing their verbal and nonverbal “voice.”

How can I not worry when my wonderful students so earnestly told me that the brief words/sentences they punch on phone keypads and laptop/iPad keyboards don't translate into relationships that they would be sad to lose?

I left that class feeling low, so I did something about it. Not my most innovative move, but under the guise of an assignment--and it is a communication class, after all--I forced my students into a technology fast. Here were the rules:

-No e-mail, texting, or Facebook for three days.
-They had to pick up the phone or go see someone in person instead.
-Then, report the changes (positive ones, hopefully, with the addition of communication “richness”) in their interactions.

I can't say that my students gave me a "Woot! Woot!" when I told them of my plan. Their responses (which I've altered slightly to disguise the originator) did tell me that maybe the assignment opened their eyes:

-“An hour phone call would be sufficient in comparison towards say, a 6-hour or all day text session. I think I am probably going to pick up the phone more to call and talk to people to be clear on information and stuff. It's more direct and a lot less confusing to understand."

-“At first, it felt lonely during the times we could've communicated, but I chose not to (for this experiment). But when we finally called or visited each other, it felt so satisfying.”

-“Texting definitely is like a shield but having to pick up the phone and talk is hard.”

-“We found out the gender of our baby. Only three people actually answered their phones! One friend called us twice wondering if something was wrong because we called rather than texted.”

-“Two things happened I did not expect: One was that it was not very difficult to make conversation or think about topics to talk about. Second, I enjoyed the type of connection that I was getting. It had ACTUAL emotion behind it. I could hear the tone or dialect in his voice when he talked about things he liked and didn't like.”

“The good part was I felt like I was communicating to a real person, rather than just typing the message to the phone. Thirty text messages would take like half an hour or more to finish a story, but 5 mins in a phone call can do the same story. In addition, any misunderstandings and uncertainty are dealt with ease. Furthermore, I can use body language to describe our thoughts and moods. The bad part about this was it's very hard to hide our feelings.”

Did students say they’d change their habits? Not necessarily. But they did say they’d try to at least add more “real” interaction opportunities.

I'll take it.

So, what’s the communication lesson?
The lesson is probably implied. I hardly suggest that we “give up” technology in our communication because that's just plain unrealistic.

What I wonder is this: “Flexitarians” are people who are vegetarians most of the time, but give themselves latitude to eat meat.

Can we become "fleximediums"? 

(Or something like that).

In other words, if the majority of time communicating is spent in front of a cell phone, computer, iPad, or laptop, is it possible to be flexible about our habits?

Can we devote a percentage--5%? 10%? Even 1%?--of our communication time to real dialogue, which includes more communication richness, such as verbal and nonverbal communication? A phone call? A face-to-face meeting?

After all, keeping the art of verbal communication (hopefully face-to-face) fresh and honed for times when technology just cannot substitute--like in an interview, at a networking event, even at a party--is vital. The study presented in the Chronicle article, and even my students' reactions to their assignment, told me that there was satisfaction and some confidence to be gained by disconnecting... and reconnecting in a more meaningful way.

I found an awesome example of how we can put those "fleximedium" goals in place:

Gregory Graham, another blogger (go visit his blog by clicking here), who teaches at U. of Arkansas, and researches the impact of technology on student literacy/critical thinking skills has a personal credo--a “digital philosophy”--that maybe we can take as our own, or modify. 

(By the way, before Oprah Winfrey leaves the air, I wish she would promote this philosophy, similar to the way her “No Phone Zone” contracts went viral in a millisecond).

I'll copy it here, but you can also link directly:

Gregory Graham’s Digital Philosophy
My digital philosophy is really a personal philosophy…
I refuse to allow new media technologies to interrupt my face-to-face interactions with others.
I refuse to allow new media technologies to interrupt my quiet times or sacred spaces.
I refuse to allow my interaction through these technologies to replace real-life, real-time experiences.
I will utilize new media technologies to supplement and complement my existing relationships, to communicate with others when no other way is practical, and to acquire and pass on information.

If we turn those statements into questions, beginning with “How will I...?” then we can hatch a true plan.
Even though, comparatively speaking, my communication via technology is minimal compared to my students, I am going to make the following plan:

-I'm going to pull my face off of my phone when I'm idly waiting in a public place. If there are people around, I'll go back to people watching like I used to. Or maybe I'll strike up a conversation with someone. (I won't stalk. Don't worry.) So, for example, if I'm waiting for someone to arrive or come out of the bathroom, they won't find me distracted while I furtively finish a text or e-mail on my phone.

Along that line, my second goal: 

-I'm going to re-focus on being fully present when I'm in face-to-face interactions. At times, I am guilty of sneaking peeks at my phone for e-mail or texts. Yes, sometimes it's necessary, like if my husband can't pick up kids or if I am telecommuting and I need to stay in contact with students. But, very often, it's not necessary, and I know that.

What 1% (or more?) measure are you willing to take to start your fleximedium-ism? I'd love to hear about it in an e-mail or a comment at the end of this post.

But after you do that, go see a friend.

Go make a call.

I'm going to do that right now.

(I hope they answer the phone!).


  1. A few weeks ago I attended a Seattle Town Hall event where James Gleick discussed his new book, "The Information". While the book, which I haven't read, is about viewing information as objects (simplified summary!), the discussion afterward turned toward privacy and how our technology is eroding our privacy.

    I take a completely different view. (This is relevant to this post. Stick with me to the end.)

    I grew up in a small town of 200 people. There was no real privacy. The local grocer knew what you were having for dinner. If you bought condoms, he knew what you planning to do after dinner. When you picked up your mail at the post office, the other patrons knew you got a box from an online retailer. It was expected you'd tell them what you got. Whatever your kid told his friends at school about what was happening at home came home to their parents, your neighbors.

    Technology isn't eroding our privacy; it's shrinking our world back to small town living. It's a small town culture with a whole lot more people.

    Our individualized culture allows us to move to a different time zone without much consideration. We move to urban settings where we may only smile politely at our neighbors. We may know the names of the dogs, but not the names of their owners. I've met most of the people who live on my block, yet I've only been in the houses of two of them.

    We feel disconnected to our communities, so technology steps in to fill the void.

    Facebook status updates and twitter feeds are equivalent to running into someone in that small town grocery store. Enough time to hear what's new but not enough time for a meaningful connection.

    In small town life we need to make time to have lemonade on the porch or coffee in the parlor. The same is true in busy urban life. While I may not have lemonade with my physical neighbor, a telephone conversation with my virtual neighbor serves the same purpose.

    I completely agree with you that we need to make time for more meaningful connections. However, technology is not to blame for why we don't. Technology is the result of that disconnection.

  2. Sue, can I first say that I love that you used the word "parlor"? :-) What you've written is definitely a different perspective. I agree with you that I remember my youth as being very different, particularly with our neighbors (and I grew up in NY). At least you and I have those contrasts. What I worry about is our students may not. They are growing up experiencing technologically mediated communication as THE pinnacle of communication. I appreciate your perspective on this. I will say that out of this post, I have gotten a few more phone calls. And I've liked that :-).