Are we losing the art of conversation?

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Each week I like to read in the Australian Financial Review the column by Lucy Kellaway[1]. Her columns invariably provide an interesting take on aspects of leadership, people in organisations, and how they function. This week she honed in on why people in offices don’t appear to speak to each other as they work and how office chatter and gossip throughout the day belong to a time past. What’s more, she observes, chatter today seems to be discouraged.

Since reading Lucy’s column as I go about my day I have been paying closer attention to how people are communicating and interacting. One day I rode public transport for peak hour travel, as I often do, and although there wasn’t a spare seat on the bus there was an incredible silence. No one was talking on their phone, a couple of people were talking to each other with hushed tones, and with few exceptions every person was staring into the screen of their mobile phone or tablet. Then the unthinkable happened, someone’s phone rang and they proceeded to have a conversation. I observed the reaction of fellow travellers – their body language was incredibly disapproving of this conversation. I contrasted this reaction with what was occurring a decade ago on public transport when you were flat out hearing yourself think over people talking incessantly and loudly on their phones.

The other aspect that I noticed was what I can only assume was constant texting by passengers as I watched opposable thumbs moving at warp speed, something of which I am envious because I dislocated and broke my right thumb playing football many decades ago so I lack the dexterity to use both thumbs simultaneously.

As I visited different client offices during the day, Lucy’s observation again proved correct; minimal discussion and what I have known as corridor conversations were rare. The nosiest place I found during the day was the food court near our office because people had to actually speak to place their lunch order although one of the team did inform me on my return that they had list of the food outlets that could be sent a text to place a lunch order. Really?

What is happening to communication and the art of and value of conversation? I raised my observations with colleagues and their responses included:

  • People are too busy with work
  • The speed and pace at which business is being done limits interactions
  • Text and email are more efficient
  • The major Telcos changed their marketing focus to selling data plans as opposed to timed calls
  • The advent of smarter phones leading to ease of use
  • The advent of an array of social apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp etc.

What is of interest to me are the cultural impacts in wider society and within organisations. According to Human Synergistics[2], organisational culture can be defined as the shared beliefs, norms and expectations that govern the way people approach their work and interact with each other. The words I am focusing on are shared beliefs, norms and expectations because when it comes to communication new norms are forming that suggest that a cultural shift is occurring around us where the new norm is some form of app based communication.

Let’s try to imagine propelling ourselves forward ten years to 2027, with advances in technology, apps, artificial intelligence and machine learning will we need to talk at all? We will have cost effective communication at speed, immediate shorter and constant 24/7 communication opportunities, direct access to anyone and to information anywhere on the planet, fast and powerful distribution channels along with the opportunity for instant feedback.

From my perspective what we are in danger of losing are those opportunities to converse, to engage and to comprehend, all of which are personal, gain an immediate response, allow for questions to be asked and responses given, emotions to be expressed, is confidential, and allows for appropriate information to be shared with the intended audience.

Which is why if my mobile rings again while I am on public transport or anywhere else for that matter I will answer it.

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