Technology Is Making Us Socially Awkward

Sure, emoji are great at conveying how we feel. But are we getting worse at expressing ourselves with face-to-face communication? (Animation: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

I am what society has labeled “a Millennial.” Looking back at my life so far, there is a pretty clear divide: Life before tech, and life after tech.

Life before tech: Spend majority of waking hours incessantly talking to my friends IRL (during basketball games, hanging out at home, during lunch, etc.).

Life after tech: Spend majority of waking hours on my Macbook or smartphone, incessantly texting or emailing my friends in between stories and blog-surfing. 

Life before tech: Finally learn how to interact with cute guys by the end of middle school. (Sweet success.)

Life after tech:Panic while talking to lone cute guy in line at Starbucks as a full-fledged adult. 

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like I don’t remember what life was like pre-technology. I got my first cell phone in the seventh grade, but didn’t start sending text messages until high school. A significant portion of my life growing up was offline — I played sports and did heaps of extracurriculars in my teen years. As far as I know, I was a pretty well-adjusted kid. 

But today, I look around at a sea of my peers, their heads bent down over their smartphones, unable to ask for dates or coherently take a five-minute phone call, and I can’t help but wonder:

Is tech making us all socially awkward?

EXHIBIT A: The Lost Art of the Phone Call

A lot of my friends hate talking on the phone. Until I became a journalist and was forced to do this every single day, I also shared a fear of this old-fashioned invention. In the immediate aftermath of the texting boom, I’m pretty sure there was a three-year gap where I never spoke into a receiver.

I remember the first guy who actually called me on the phone, instead of just shooting me a text, to set up a date. It took me a second to realize my phone was ringing, not just pinging, before I responded with a rather reticent, “Uh…hello?” This is so weird. He spoke with an arresting, reassuring confidence, so much so that it felt right — albeit foreign. 

He continued to call me. And slowly, I began to look forward to these regular phone calls instead of rapid-fire texts. My friends thought this phone business was madness — but I thought it was a nice, new breed of madness where plans and communication were undoubtedly clearer, and I actually felt connected to the person on the other end of the line. 

But this is rare, and I realize that. These days, it’s all about ease — the no-effort text, IM, email, WhatsApp, or Facebook message. But while technology has made communication easier, it’s also completely changed the definition of what it means to be social.

When’s the last time you actually picked up a phone — to talk, not text? (Animation: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

Consider the origins of human communication, and you’ll see why the modern incarnation is plagued with issues. It evolved in an environment “in which small numbers of people communicated by speaking face-to-face, in real time,” says Art Markman, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Today, we’re all leaning on canned conversations over real ones, and have lost the ability to relate to our peers in person. “Normal phone conversations get more difficult when people spend most of their time having their interactions through text,” Markman tells Yahoo Health. “In an email or text, you have an opportunity to think more about your response and to curate the conversation. In real-time interactions, you cannot delay for too long thinking about your reaction. People are expected to fill in their turn in the conversation.”

This either provokes anxiety or leads to misunderstanding, neither of which are positive or productive — leading us to the next problem.

EXHIBIT B: Thanks, Technology, for the Unnecessary Anxiety

Without a face attached to the words, there’s always an element of anxiety inherent in electronic communication. “These faceless, technological social interactions of email and text messages give me the most tension,” Derek Handova, a content-marketing manager in his 30s from Silicon Valley, California, confesses to Yahoo Health. “Reading text messages in black and white, without any emotional context of tone of voice or facial expressions, leads me to read into it — the worst meanings.”

Technology is just always there, and it’s got us all in a state of perpetual freakout. A whopping 80 percent of us sleep with our smartphones. According to a UK poll, almost half of men and women felt uncomfortable or anxious if they couldn’t login to social media accounts. Back in 2009, researcher Tamyra Pierce carried out a study that showed the more teens texted and IMed, the more anxious they felt chatting up others in real time.

Related: What Texting Does to Your Spine (OMG!)

Reading other people’s emotions is an underdeveloped skillset for everyone, not just Millennials, says Markman. “We are certainly wired to see people’s facial expressions and to hear tone of voice, but it takes practice to do that well,” he says. “It is particularly hard to do this in close relationships, in which even seemingly small miscommunications can spiral into big problems if they are not addressed.”

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize emotions in ourselves and others, incorporate brain power and discernment, and control our response — and it takes practice that we’re not necessarily getting.

In fact, in 2014, UCLA researchers took a bunch of 12-year-olds to camp, and found, essentially, that digital devices were seriously messing with the ability to read emotional cues. For the study, one group of students at the week-long camp were allowed their usual tech diet of smartphones, tablets, and digital devices. The other group was deprived of these devices for the duration of their camp stay. After five days, the no-tech group did remarkably better at gauging emotional responses of people on film. And after hanging out with their peers in the absence of gadgetry, the kids improved their scores from 14.02 errors at 9.41 errors in emotion recognition.

“They improved in their social skills, having these intense face-to-face interactions for five days,” study researcher Patricia Greenfield, PhD, a professor of psychology at UCLA, tells Yahoo Health. “The implications are that having these screens stunts social growth.”

Sure, we’ve got emojis now. But those little smiley or frowny faces only go so far in a text or an email. “We try to add some of the nonverbal elements of communication back into the mix, but emojis are just symbols,” says Markman. “That means that people have to be more explicit about the emotional reaction they want to convey than they do when speaking face-to-face.”

Sad fact is, we kind of suck at this.

EXHIBIT C: Welcome to Miscommunication Station

I’ve been a victim of text miscommunication, on both sides.

I’ve sent some texts that I meant to come off as chirpy or silly, but ended up throwing some seriously unintended shade. Once, I shot off what I thought was a “witty” text to a potential date. It read something along the lines of, “You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.” He quickly responded: “Ouch, ice queen.” Me: Wait, whaaa? On second glance, I should have added an emoji. I guess it did seem more condescending than I meant it. (The relationship did not recover, BTW.)

Emotions are a lot harder to convey with just words — and no actual human face. (Animation: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

On the flipside, I’ve also received texts that sounded super-reassuring — in my mind, even great! But then I consulted a friend or two, who then questioned if my takeaway was the true meaning of the message. Could they have a point? Was I totally off? After eventually picking up the phone and talking to the sender, let’s just say it was not as great as I had imagined. Or hoped.

Everybody’s got a different text style, and everyone is reading into deeper, possibly nonexistent meanings. For instance, as grammar expert Mignon Fogarty pointed out to Science of Us, exclamation points are no longer just used to express excitement; exclamation points are basically just expressed out of politeness now.

Even though she’s been trained to use the marks sparingly, Fogarty confessed to dropping them in emails and texts. “I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period,” she said. I mean, the horror. (Period used for effect.)

If you don’t use language the recipient has come to expect, you could wind up in gobs of trouble. “The most frequent kinds of miscommunications happen with what are called the ‘pragmatic’ aspects of language,” Markman says. “That is, the elements of language that go beyond the words being spoken. For example, the sentence, ‘I really had a great time with you’ would seem to be a compliment on the surface, but depending on how it’s spoken, it could be delivered sarcastically — in which case it means the opposite of what the words mean.”

Unless you add an *eye roll* to that text, how’s the recipient gonna know for sure? It’s a 50-50 shot that message is getting garbled.

Related: 4 Ways To Better Your Relationship (According to Science)

“I’ve been a part of enough confusing conversations online, I almost think some manipulate technology to be misunderstood on purpose in order to stir up drama,” says Carrie Aulenbacher, 35, of Erie, Pennsylvania. “I’ve almost lost friendships over discussing a situation online. A friend of mine and my husband engaged in a face-to-face discussion that came to no mutual agreement. When I tried to email my friend later, everything I said was taken as me siding with my husband and I had the book thrown at me for being ‘close-minded.’”

Aulenbacher is convinced this never would have happened if they just hashed things out in person. “Had my friend sat down and had a second face-to-face talk with me, they would have heard my inflection and seen my body language to know they were misunderstanding things,” she explains to Yahoo Health. “As it was, it took over a month of online arguing and silence to work back up to a ‘live’ talk where I could fully communicate my thoughts on things.”

The friendship is still on the rocks.

EXHIBIT D: Technology Makes It Really Easy to Avoid Talking About Hard Stuff

There are many things in life we’d rather avoid: Arguments, breakups, delivering bad news. But these are all necessary and important aspects of being a living, breathing, feeling person. Facing them head-on is the only real way to engage in others’ emotional worlds, which is a vital part of genuine connectivity.

Leaning on technology to do the dirty work for us has left us seeming cold and distant. Social media and gadgets are sort of like built-in isolation devices, insulating us from getting too close. “[Technology] keeps the people who are currently in your life at arm’s length,” says Markman. “Many people spend time texting and sending instant messages to friends rather than actually getting together.”

This might make things like text-based arguments common fare. But deliver a breakup via text instead of in person, and you’re becoming calloused to the feelings of others. “People end up having difficult conversations without having to see the emotional reaction they create in the other person,” Markman says. “Although negative emotions are not fun to experience or to share, they are an important part of the human experience.”

There’s even a term for it: “ghosting.” Texts and IMs simply go unreplied, and you can conveniently unfriend and unfollow your dates until they get the hint that it’s over. It’s much easier to “slow fade” your way out of a relationship, and everyone knows it. Case in point: I recently told a friend it was not appropriate to break things off with a guy she’d been consistently seeing for a month via text. When I suggested at least a phone call, the response was: “…but, ugh. Do I have to?” [insert devastated emoji face here]

Texts and emails are great for quick reminders, thinking-of-you messages, finalizing plans, keeping written record, and work correspondence, but they can never be a substitute for face-to-face conversations, Markman says. “The most important thing about conversation is that it makes the participants in the conversation more similar to each other. When talking in real time, when people really understand each other — in that moment, they have to represent the world in exactly the same way, even if they disagree about what they are discussing,” Markman says. “As a result, people leave conversations thinking more similarly than when they started.”

At the end of the day, that’s why we connect —whether it’s by text, email, phone, letter, or in person. To relate. Let’s not forget that in the Age of Information and Alienation — or we’ll all end up on interconnected islands, together in our aloneness.

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