Having been among the first to grow up in a culture where everything is at our fingertips, has our reliance on instant gratification provided by a digital interface resulted in a total lack of real life social skills?
It was my 67-year-old mother who highlighted to me just how strange my behaviour was. She’d rather kindly offered to give me a lift to my friend’s house, and had pulled up outside as I hurriedly fired a WhatsApp announcing my arrival.
“You could just…ring the doorbell?” she said slowly, as my thumbs flashed across my cracked iPhone screen. I rolled my eyes at her, before opening the car door.
But the truth is, I don’t know anyone my age who doesn’t herald their arrival with a WhatsApp message. Why bum about on doorsteps, or be forced to make awkward conversation with your friend’s housemate, when we can just be let right in and crack on?
The wide accessibility and multiple functions that smartphones provide has certainly smoothed out and sped up a number of life’s often laborious and once time-consuming actions. In some cases, we’ve eliminated the once vital need for a middle man quite literally, social interaction no longer even a factor. You can order pizza over the internet, pay by card and ask for contact free delivery – and have a piping hot margarita in your hands within thirty minutes without having even needing to look someone in the eye.
Our ability to now get our hands on things quickly and with as little interaction as required has come to the point that millennials are now willing to pay a premium for instant gratification.
A study conducted by Datastax found that seven out of 10 millennials are willing to spend extra to reduce their wait times for services – with UK adults willing to pay around 23 per cent more than the asking price to guarantee speedy delivery. It’s little wonder, then, that we’re known as ‘generation impatient’ by our boomer counterparts.
The ability to lay our hands on things quickly has resulted in a shift in the way our mind works, says Catriona Morrison – a Psychology Professor at the University of Bradford. While she refutes the tired claim that us millennials only have an attention span of eight seconds or less, she does believe the new influx of stimuli may have altered how we retain information.
“Internet search engines and platforms like Wikipedia allow us to access information in seconds,” she explains. “When you compare this with having to perhaps spend hours in a library, current technology seems to offer us a shortcut – but at what cost?”
“What platforms such as YouTube and TikTok demonstrate is that a vast range of the information we want is within easy reach and accessibility, avoiding having to plough through dozens of books or articles as we’d have had to in the past. But this in itself puts a lot of pressure on our attentional capacity.
“There’s no doubt that our devices can be very distracting in social situations, and it’s around for all to see – if you observe people in a social setting like a café, it’s striking to see how many people will be in a group and immersed not in chat, but in their mobile phone. This is damaging for relationships and also for the individual’s wellbeing, as they are isolating themselves, while ironically probably thinking they are more connected because they have this constant stream of up-to-the-second information/news/updates.”
Indeed, having grown up learning to seamlessly navigate a steady influx of new technology and updates, we can easily order toiletries online, glide through a PowerPoint presentation and summon taxis seemingly out of thin air – but it has left us floundering conversationalists.
A study by OpenMarket found 75 per cent of millennials would rather have a phone that only texted as opposed to a voicecall only phone, with 53 per cent adding they widely prefer to communicate via text than phone call.
The shift in culture away from face-to-face conversation is apparent even aspects of life where you’d think human contact is essential. Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld found that heterosexual couples are more likely to meet a romantic partner on social media, with a steep and steady decline in more traditional ways of meeting partners, such as through friends or at events.
Our reliance on the speedy repartee instant messaging provides is with is simply done out of convenience, psychologist and friendship expert Dr Marisa G Franco explains.
“When it comes to changes in social behaviours, when it comes to conversation, there’s now a reliance on what’s the easiest and most helpful way to converse with someone, but not necessarily what’s the best way to emotionally connect,” she says.
“This is what makes apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook messenger so popular with millennials.”
Dr Franco adds that when we communicate purely through digital interfaces and social media platforms, there’s so many more opportunities for our words to be misconstrued.
“Research shows people are very likely to assume rejection, even though it’s not occurring,” she explains. “And I think that that is even more inflamed during text messages – we add our own baggage when we’re reading something, so it sounds as if it’s in a different tone.”
Relationship Expert and author Sam Owen adds that these apps have only succeeded in creating an “emotional distance”, where we need intimacy in order to build a relationship and have a decent conversation.
“Social media apps are not really sociable at all, they are photo albums and billboards,” she says. “Written communication does not allow us to convey the full extent of our emotions; that happens with non-verbal communication such as tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. Apps don’t allow us to truly gauge how someone is feeling.
“On apps, people struggle to listen well, empathise, be compassionate and be respectful, and it’s because they are not looking into someone’s eyes (which according to research makes us more self-aware) and are struggling to get all the information they need from the other person’s verbal and non-verbal communication.”
Sam adds that these negative feelings, achieved through digital communication, can then spill out to real life scenarios.
“Research finds that emotions are contagious and spread through social networks both online and offline, up to three degrees of separation,” she says. “When confusion and the resulting anger spreads like wildfire, it’s bad news for everyone.”
The coronavirus pandemic may have only exacerbated the situation for millennials. For over 12 months, the vast majority of our day-to-face and typically face-to-face interactions with people were eliminated entirely, replaced with Zoom calls, Facetime and WhatsApp chats.
Morrison raises concerns about the impact the pandemic may have had on young adults and their ability to focus, which could only impact their attention spans and conversational skills further.
“So many were at crucial stages of relationships, education and careers,” she says. “They’re vital for people to develop a sense of self – an understanding of who they are’ so the strictures of lockdown have particularly impacted them.
“It’s of little surprise that many young adults have complained about ‘brain fog’ – a key symptom of low mood, an inability to think clearly and not being able to focus.
“The secondary effects of low mood caused by the pandemic will have had a global effect on people’s cognitive functioning. We mustn’t underestimate the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on mental wellbeing.”
Like all other abilities, conversation skills need to be practised regularly in order to be kept sharp – something that the pandemic put a stop to for an extended period of time/
“I did a quick poll among my clients and 80 per cent said that the pandemic has deteriorated their social skills,” Dr Franco says. “They reported things like, trouble making eye contact, having no filter, feeling very one con was feeling very exhausted by social interaction. Yeah, just rambling, and not understanding social cues and feeling that people don’t like them. And these are all symptoms of social anxiety.
“It’s a vicious circle, as this anxiety makes us less social and more withdrawn. When we’re lonely, we’re more aware of the threat of rejection.
“Like anything else, social interaction requires practise, and it’s also one of the most difficult practices we can do. There’s so many things that our brain is juggling – thinking of something to say, saying it, reading cues, understanding what the other person says, thinking about how to respond. It’s very, very hard. And so, if you’re speaking to someone over text, but you’re not supplementing that with in person interaction, then I can certainly see how social skills can deteriorate.”
But before we decry face-to-face conversations as a pre-pandemic indulgence that we will never be able to master, Owen is more optimistic about the future of conversation in millennials.
“Obviously we have made an effort to use video calls more because we recognise we want to connect with people as fully as we can; that’s our natural instinct coming out because we are deprived of it,” she says. “And maybe it’s the reminder everybody needed. That people matter. That connecting face-to-face, matters.
“And really, you realise that a screen still isn’t the same as being in person so maybe now people have realised the power of communicating properly.”
Conversation skills floundering? Here’s how to sharpen up
- Put your phone away: “When you’re with friends and family the phone needs to be firmly out of sight,” Catriona Morrison says. “And insist that others do the same. Focus on what’s most important, bearing in mind that attention span is limited.”
- Be present: “Absorb all the information they are conveying, verbally and non-verbally, because it all matters,” Sam Owen says. “You are shaping people’s worth, whether you intend to or not, give everybody respect and those who don’t reciprocate can be pruned away.”
- Be compassionate: “Come at every interaction from a place of caring and trying to empathise; you’ll feel better for it and you will help them,” Owen says. “And remember the ripple effect. Happiness is contagious up to three degrees of separation, that means it affects your friends, your friends’ friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends. “
- Have confidence: “People that are using technology as a proxy for in person are often afraid of rejection,” Dr Marisa G Franco says. “There’s something called the ‘liking gap’, where strangers that interact often underestimate how much people liked them. Go into interactions and assume people like you. And then take initiative. Don’t assume that friendship happens organically, don’t wait for people to ask you.
- Practise, practise, practise: “Habits form when we repeatedly and consistently do a certain thing,” Owen says. “Over time we strengthen the neural networks in our brain for that habit so that eventually those behaviours come naturally to us.”