Are We Losing The Art Of Decoding Expression?
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted June 02, 2011

When we say “meeting” these days, we often mean getting on a conference call or clicking onto an online web meeting site. Without the ability to peer across the table to learn what our colleague is really thinking or feeling, we must rely on words and a few other contextual cues to impart the real meaning of our colleague’s spoken or written message. Those of us of a certain age have had a whole lifetime in which to learn how to interpret a heavy sigh, a nervous guffaw or dead silence. Younger folks, however, have grown up with a constant (and yes, sometimes mindless) exchange of words alone as a replacement for real conversation, leaving them at a significant disadvantage when it comes to reading nonverbal cues.

In a recent Wall St Journal article, author Mark Bauerlein argues that the dominance of social networking puts younger people at a face-to-face disadvantage. He offers some startling stats: On average, teenagers with cellphones send and receive more than 2,200 text messages per month. They spend an average of nine hours a week on social networking, not including email, blogging, IM, texting and tweeting. Many have eschewed phones altogether in favor of text-based communications methods, none of which provides an opportunity to hear voice tone or see body language. (And no, pasting an emoticon to represent your mood does not count as “face-time!”)

So what’s the real harm here? Absent constant opportunities to decode expressive forms of communications, we simply will not learn how to react or respond to others’ nonverbal cues. The ability to impart meaning from one’s facial expression, tone of voice, choice of words, or cadence is a nuanced affair that takes years of experience to get right even most of the time.

Knowing how to accurately interpret nonverbal communication is something that can’t be taught explicitly or learned quickly. In fact, much of the time we don’t even know how to describe how we have learned that someone is mad or disappointed in us. We just know. But what if we no longer had frequent opportunities to really study a face or posture, or to listen to the tone in someone’s voice? Or suppose we did have the opportunity, but we were so busy tapping into our Smartphones that we failed to look up and listen?

“We live in a culture where young people..are ever less likely to develop the ’silent fluency’ that comes from face-to-face interaction. It is a skill that we all must learn, in actual social settings, from people who are adept in the idiom…The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when it comes to their capacity to read the behavior of others, they are all thumbs.” Mark Baulein, Why Generation-Y Can’t Read Non-Verbal Cues, WSJ 9-24-09

How can organizations help the young and not-so-young work together amidst constant communication disconnects? Fostering reverse mentoring is one possible solution, where digital natives with technology smarts teach older workers, who in turn impart “social” wisdom to their younger colleagues.

Another solution may be to encourage people to express how they feel and why in order to sensitize each other to the differences in communication styles. For example, when a colleague won’t stop multi-tasking in the middle of every conversation, say “I feel like you’re dismissing my opinion when I try to say something to you. Can you be listening to me when you’re in the middle of other conversations?” In turn, the multi-tasker can provide his or her perspective: “I don’t need to be looking into your eyes to listen to you. I have no problem focusing on two things at once.” (This brings to mind that there is much recent research to indicate pretty conclusively that no matter how high your IQ or how long you’ve been multitasking, the human brain simply cannot competently process more than one intellectual activity at once. But that’s gist for another post, perhaps!)

A lesson for all of us regardless of generation: If we pay more attention to peoples’ voices when we’re on conference calls instead of texting, typing or otherwise multitasking, we will better preserve our ability to read vital nonverbal cues.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy