Effective communication is more than electronic notifications
We live in an age of relentless data. There are notifications on our computer, on our phone, on our devices, in our mail, and more. We are more attuned to screens and what they tell us than ever before in history. So, why do we still not feel communication is effective?
Does our education system, and indeed, our personal, and professional, lives provide meaningful information?
We are disconnected because of the way we evolved. We are human animals, and we evolved to interact face to face, and voice to voice. We evolved to know posture, tone, pitch, hierarchy cues, social nuance, factors like age, roles, and even cues like immediate recognition of from where a person might be, how their differences exclude, or include, them in “tribe” to varying, and complex, degrees.
We invented written language quite recently in evolutionary terms. Written language, which began with pictographs, has evolved to abstract squiggles on pages that stand in for not just meaning, but tone, emotion, and more. We are returning to pictographs, in a sense, with emojis, but this of course is still nothing like having context and face to face interaction.
The other reason we feel alienated, now that we have more than 400 friends, or followers, is the human mind has limits on how many people it can loyally keep connected to at any given time. Dunbar’s number, named for UK anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, sets the number of stable relationships that we are able to maintain at 150 individuals.
Connection is social, not digital
Furthermore, friendship for those first 250,000 years was determined by such things as social grooming, just as it still is in other animals, notably primate groups, today.
It is easy enough to realize why social grooming, “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” sets up human relationships with clear evidence of trust, loyalty, favoring, affection, reciprocity, rank, social order, and practical considerations such as hygiene, and disease prevention. If you remove all my ticks and fleas, and I remove yours, Bubonic plague and Lyme disease are less dangerous to both of us.
But, of course, people are now socialized to be squeamish about what once was natural.
For modern humans, we have exchanged our natural grooming behavior for a kind of monetary exchange. We pay hairdressers, and manicurists, and massage therapists, among others, to fill in our need for social grooming.
The hierarchy detection function of social grooming remains to an extent. The person who styles Donald Trump’s hair, for example, ranks lower. It is highly unlikely that Trump practices any kind of social reciprocity for the service, but a clear monetary one is likely well established. Given that, what does Donald Trump’s social grooming provide?
It provides a clear map of who is entitled, and who is not. It also provides a communication about loyalty, trust, and so on, but not a two-way (reciprocated) exchange in such cases.
What this has to do with our everyday shortcomings in communication is interesting. It demonstrates that we have quite rapidly adopted a system whereby we can accommodate one another without completely knowing, or trusting, to the degree we once did.
If the muffler repair man (or woman) leaves a message for you that your car is ready to pick up, you do not have to even speak to him, in order to get your car back. If you are somewhat old-fashioned like me, in order to receive more information about your car, you may choose to speak directly to the mechanic. However, it is also likely that the front desk help, not the mechanic, is who calls you, and leaves a voice message, to tell you that your car is ready for pick up.
What we lose with more messages and less context
We are honing great efficiency in such circumstances. We can even get all our groceries without a single human interaction. But something is lost in such indirect communication, and it is wise to consider all that might be.
The marketplace used to function as not just a practical means of obtaining resources. It was also a marketplace of ideas, friendly exchange, creating networks, building relationships, and finding belonging.
It is finding belonging that is most lacking in our modern discourse. It is quite troubling to those of us who study psychology, and alienation. There is also the obvious damage done by bullying, trolls, and insulated “news” bubbles.
When people meet naturally face to face, they take on the vulnerability that sets a stage for trust. When people can mask their identity with anonymity, it has been well documented that they can become more savage, and even cruel, to people they refuse to connect to as potential members, or at least, non-threats, to their own tribe.
Lost connections in a connected world
We now inhabit a global village. It is over-crowded to a degree, at least in urban areas which are growing much faster day by day. We live in a world where we message one another rather than talking to our neighbors, grocers, or merchants. We don’t know, and generally do not care, who sews the buttons on our shirts.
This is troubling for several reasons. When commerce is reduced to just resource allocation, then obviously those of wealth will have better access to health, resources, food, water, education, shelter, and human rights. Without genuine attachment and feeling for those factory workers who sew our shirts, we dismiss them as human beings.
When we dismiss others as human beings, we are far more likely to also dismiss the supportive biosphere that makes our food, water, clean air, and shelter. That is, when we exclude others and the natural world, we create a false reality based on artificial perception.
From my perspective, the sooner Donald Trump goes out and hugs a tree instead of a flag, the sooner practicality will replace ideology.
Without inclusion and belonging, for all, we begin to feel alienated, lonely, afraid, and without support. We need more than an online life to effectively communicate.
These days, people do not want to know about the suffering, or costs, of where their shirts, chicken nuggets, or even almonds, come from. In fact, we have arranged to sanitize it so much, that we also lose appreciation of it. This ignorance allows monocultures, carbon, and/or pesticide use to critically endanger our food supply. Without bees, for example, food is becoming more and more expensive. This sets up the possibility of an elite that has access to more food, and an underclass, that does not.
There is a very dangerous feed-back loop that separates us from all of nature and all of one another with whom we once worked very, very closely with in order to survive.
Language stores better in the brain
When we developed the written word, it was because we had more of less discovered agriculture, and soon after formed cities, then city states, then nations.
By nature of being abstract, however, our language skills in writing can never come close to the enormous amount of information that is conveyed with face to face speaking.
Oral traditions, for example, allowed complex information and creation tales to be passed down for thousands of years. Writing them down means they are largely lost. This sets us up for cherry picking language. Do you pick and choose bible verses, to support an opinion — for example, or do you know both context and memorized chapter and meaning?
This is because when we set something to brain memory, we can access it with our mind. When we instead, store data in electronic devices, we create a false sense of security. We think we have “back up” but we only have storage.
You are more likely to learn history dates better, for example, if instead of writing down the mere facts and dates, you recite and share dramatic details with another person.
Similarly, if you have a dentist appointment, and only count on your device to remind you, you are more likely to forget it, and miss your check-up.
You can have a thousand copies of information, but what you store in your mind is what your emotions, mind, and body will tag as “important.”
Language that has meaning, stores better in the brain. Language that passes down information for ages hence, is best recorded, in copies.
What about people raised with total technological immersion?
Studies are still ongoing as to whether people raised entirely on devices will evolve to secure information, and communicated data, more effectively.
Perhaps new ways to really connect, to truly communicate, will evolve with our technology.
However, what is certainly sure, is that without a real effort to make sure a large number of our human interactions are done in real face to face time, and with immersion in a natural world that makes everything else possible, we could lose much more than our dental appointments.
Make time each, and every day, to directly connect with another person, and for even more mental and emotional health, appreciate the trees, bees, and manatees that make your life possible.
The best poem in the world can evoke a tree’s beauty. It cannot make oxygen, like a real tree, does, to mitigate the climate crisis.
Effective communication starts with communing with the world. Ecopsychology teaches us that belonging, the very essence of communication, is everything.