Isn't it splendid when communication is efficient? When the exchange of information flows directly, absent the usual social conventions and adornments. So much in person conversation today involves empty remarks and expected pleasantries. It's all very civil and a natural part of direct interaction. It's just that life is so much faster today, time is thin and sometimes I just want to get to the point.
You bump into an acquaintance at the grocery store. Both of you are anxious to pick up your items, load them up and get home. But first, there's this:
"Oh, hi John. How are you?" the woman says.
"Pretty good, thanks, just running a few errands," I answer, wondering who the vaguely familiar woman is.
"Yeah, I'm glad it's almost the weekend. I think it's supposed to be warm Saturday." She puts an item in her cart.
"Oh yeah? I know we need rain, but it's nice to have the sunshine." I still can't place where I know her.
"So how old is your son now? He must be getting big?" she asks.
"Yep, he's 17 and as tall as me." I'd ask about her kids, but I don't know if she has any.
"Say, is it legal to make a right turn at a red light?" she asks.
"As long as it's safe, yes. California is a 'right on red' state," I answer.
"You know, I thought so, but wasn't sure. I knew you'd know!" She smiles.
"Yeah, kinda comes with the job," I say clumsily.
"Well, I got to find some cottage cheese. Nice seeing you." She starts to pass by with her cart.
"Yeah, have a nice weekend," I say, still unsure who she is.
It's not that I don't like people. I wouldn't have become a police officer if I didn't enjoy interacting and helping others. But the pace of life, responsibilities, over socialization during my work days and general fatigue take their toll. And as I've gotten older, I'm less patient with superficial chit chat. Not to mention feigned affection and hugs with people we aren't really close with. I know I sound like a curmudgeon. My mother says I'm turning into my father, who was a bit of a stoic.
Imagine the same grocery store conversation via phone text or social media.
"Hi John, can I ask you something?" I look at the name with the text, then check it against my contact list. Oh, it's Jill, my dental hygienist.
"Sure," I text back.
"Can I make a right turn at a red light?"
"Yep," I text back, "it's legal in CA" I text.
"Great, thanks!:)" she texts back.
And that's it. Short, to the point and efficient. Over in less than a minute and I'm back to shopping. Even better, I'm not annoyed trying to figure out who she is! No banal back and forth about the weather or obligatory questions about the family.
My wife is a registered nurse who's recently been working a few late shifts. Last weekend she was relaxing in the backyard, texting with on-line friends who were part of a closed Facebook group. The group are fans of the "Outlander" books and TV series. My wife was laughing periodically and enjoying herself. At some point she looked up and said," It's so nice to be able to sit around in my sweats and just connect like this. I don't have to get dressed or go anywhere."
I understood what she meant. The brief nature of texts and social media requires less effort. There are no awkward moments and you can drop in and out of the dialogue at will. You're also able to interact with like minded people, be it "Outlander" fans or (in my case) fellow landscape painters.
Beyond efficiency, I'm often struck with how honest online conversations are. Kind of like conversing with a fellow passenger on a long plane flight. Talking to a complete stranger often allows us to be more honest. There's little to lose. We can bounce innermost thoughts off one another.
I'm often struck by the heartfelt, deeply personal comments I receive from readers of my blog. Most of my readers I've never met. But I feel like I understand them. Like we share similar perspectives, interests and dreams.
Do I think texting and social media should replace real, face to face interaction? Of course not. In fact, I worry that young people today are losing the ability to relate. They often lack the art of communication. There are times when knowing how to make small talk is invaluable. It can open a door to broader communication and deeper relationships. But for a guy who still uses fountain pens and went kicking and screaming into the digital age, I get it now.
Texts can be faster and more efficient than phone calls. Social media connects like minded folks, and its anonymity allows for some honest, heartfelt conversations. Yes, there is still plenty of dishonesty and snarky comments on social media. But digital communication is definitely changing how we interact.
Years ago a book came out entitled "Bowling Alone." It's premise was that social connections are eroding because fewer and fewer people are joining bowling leagues, service clubs, church groups and such.
Has the digital age eroded social capital and human connection? Or has it broadened it, as evidenced by the success of Kickstarter campaigns and social media "meet ups" in various cities? Only time will tell if all of this is a good thing or not.