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The Threat Against Communication

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During winter break, I stopped by my freshmen teacher’s geometry class, and decided to stay for a bit. Class started. Twenty minutes in, only three people gave an effort to speak, with a confidence that was minimal at best. When my teacher resorted to calling on people, the students boasted an aloofness that bordered on disrespectful. Sure, they’re high schoolers, but I don’t remember anyone in my grade being so unresponsive — was class always like this?

I ask my teacher, who has been teaching a long time, how the newest class compares to those from years past, and she echoes what I had already observed. When I ask her what’s the cause, she smiled knowingly. “Without a doubt, it’s the phones!”

With online communication becoming so normalized in the past decade, we experience less face to-face interaction on a daily basis. The benefits of such medium are plenty as we connect with people regardless of who they are, where they live, or what they do. It has bestowed upon us a virtual world of endless influence and possibilities.

Nevertheless, the obvious yet critical difference between online and normal conversation is that the former never requires one to face another person. More than ever, new generations have mastered the art of communicating online — in lieu of the more traditional ways. A recent study found teenagers spending more than a whopping nine hours in one day on media, with tweens aged from eight to twelve spending six hours. Keeping up with friends, the news, and community is shaping a generation to be more capable behind the screen then in person.

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It’s true that online skills are crucial to a workplace that also wraps itself around an online platform. However, with the new generation being better versed online than in person, many subtle yet important abilities in verbal communication are jeopardized. Gestures like reading someone’s reaction and responding appropriately, empathizing with emotions that flash across a face, or even maintaining lively conversation are social actions that future generations are simply having less continuous practice with. The conventions of human empathy and emotion are being switched out for a more widespread but less sympathetic medium.

This shift in social dynamics will be felt when it comes to employees cooperating and making important decisions. We’re dealing with an incoming workforce that would rather email or message than deal with a problem in person. We’re dealing with a workforce that doesn't have the collaboration instincts needed for unexpected situations. In a world where slacktivism is rampant and social media is as pervasive as ever, our future ability to communicate in favor of change is threatened.

It’s likely that the future Harvard classes will still be more vocal than their high school peers, so perhaps this generational shift won’t be felt much on campus. However, as future leaders of their field, these classes will have to be well equipped in navigating an unprecedented range of social abilities. The important skills that are instinctual to some won’t be to others, and it’s going to take time before an adjustment for the differences is made.

There’s no way to change the focus of this epidemic without severely inhibiting online communication, which is certainly not happening soon. Therefore, this can certainly be seen as another crucial point in the case for the humanities.

Critical reading, listening to others, analyzing a perspective, and directing conversation are all trademarks of the humanities. It’s about getting to the core of what you want to know and building up the ability and confidence to find it, which is advantageous in diagnosing and solving problems that may arrive from an imbalance in communication skills.

Put frankly, the Harvard classes of the twenty first century need to prepare themselves for a fascinating shift in the way people approach complex problems. The globalization issues we’re facing are growing more dire by the minute — we can’t afford to depend on a workforce that struggles to look other people in the eye.

Michelle C. Lara ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.

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