Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher
 

Reach Out and i-Touch Someone

Tweet, text or type an email. Communicating is easier and faster than ever. But are there still certain times – and topics – where it’s best to meet in person or pick up the phone? Even in our modern era, there are times when should never replace the human touch.

We joke about it: Parents call their children’s cell phones and get no answer, then send a text message and receive an immediate response. Baby Boomer salespeople – still convinced the government will charge a penny per email – have by-and-large substituted email blasts for telemarketing. (This group invented the Do Not Call list, I suspect, to make it near-illegal to telemarket themselves.)

Even the Pope has a Twitter account.

Do there remain  times when technology gets in the way of interpersonal communications? Every medium has a mode in which people – still human beings as of this writing – can develop or maintain relationships. While posting birthday wishes on Facebook poses little threat to our friendships, you don’t have to be a Luddite to wonder if some texts and tweets just don’t “feel” right. In fact, they might be separating us from each other, not drawing us closer together.

On one hand, Facebook “likes” and gifting apps help us remain connected more than in the past. Distance and time barriers have been virtually eliminated. Yet human beings – friends or clients – are more than one-click semi-sarcastic Wall postings living in flattened online spaces. Sometimes we experience life in ways that do not “translate” onto a smartphone screen: Great moments in people’s lives – of happiness or sadness, accomplishment or disappointment, require different communication technologies for us to “do right” by our friends.

Technologies like the hug, the eye-contact, or at great distances, at least the cell phone.

Artists and language specialists know this. Some things get “lost in translation” when you change the medium. Writing a song about a Picasso painting just won’t capture the same meaning; Writing a book about a dance is not the same performing the dance. As human beings, we have many ways to communicate because we have many things to communicate. Creatively, we use the right tool for the right job, within various interpersonal contexts at home, at work, and within our social network.

Recent examples come to mind: A friend’s pet passes away, and we hear of it on Facebook. Why don’t we pick up the phone, to express sympathy? Do a few uncapitalized words do our friend justice at a very sad moment in their life? Someone’s child does not get into their college of choice: Shall we try to cheer them up with a one-line quote from a dead poet copied and pasted into a comment box?

Have we become so busy that bosses cannot look employees in the eye during a layoff? It’s not comfortable for either person, but the “termination email” seems cruel by comparison. When we must disappoint a client – their offer was not accepted, or their new laptop has been delayed for the third time – why do we send an email instead of picking up the phone to express our apologies?

It will be claimed that there are no rules to the game. Each of us can make up our own methods: But do we feel the appropriate “icky” feeling afterwards when we tweeted rather than visited in person? Young people won’t talk to you by phone, they say; how will they remember their grandparent’s smile someday, from their text messages? Are older generations fogies to take it personally when fired by email, or do we owe it to everyone to meet in person when telling them their life is about to get harder? Nobody talks to the restaurant managers any more – to express delight or disappointment – but they’ll instantly whine about it online with a pseudonym account.

It reminds me of something a friend once told me: If an agent wants to be great with social media, they have to start by being a great agent, first. I gave him a “thumbs up” on that advice by paying for lunch. And eating it with him in person.

Before we become a society in which doctors treat the ill by Tweet, maybe we should remember that technology’s is a job aid. I can make the job of communicating easier, but it won’t tell you what job to do. That’s still left up to the individual. And there are so many options – if we look beyond our screens and wireless signals. It would be a sad day for us all when we force every communication into a few flat medium choices.

We may be entering a period where “keeping up” with someone replaces “keeping in touch” with them. Even old school technologies like the phone company used to say “reach out and touch someone.” Not call them. It would be an irony indeed if all of our new touch-screen technology made it harder to touch people’s lives.