Smartphones Are Destroying Our Face-to-Face Conversational Skills

Is the smartphone really destroying the quality of face-to-face conversations? Has it become a tool for avoiding conversations and interactions?

Smartphones Are Destroying Our Face-to-Face Conversational Skills

Various studies and surveys have been conducted by researchers and psychologists about the negative impact the smartphone has had on our society, and it will not come as a surprise to anyone that there is a consensus among them about the fact that it has, to a worrying extent, eroded our social fabric.

There is no denying the truth that the smartphone is a way of life now and has numerous advantages – and nobody is advocating doing away with it. However, one has to admit that it has murdered the art of face-to-face conversation. Rather than using it as a great piece of technology and making the most of its various benefits we have become collectively obsessed with it, so much so, that it has virtually become an extension of ourselves.

An observational study conducted in this regard revealed that pairs and small groups sitting in a coffee shop habitually checked their phones every 3.-5 minutes on an average, and in most cases the phones were never out of sight – most preferring to keep their phones in their hands or right in front of them on the tables where they could see them.

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Shalini Misra, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, believes that the mere presence of a smartphone during a face-to-face conversation adversely affects the quality of the interaction.

According to a study led by Misra on “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices,” published in July 2014, in the journal, Environment & Behavior, the research team observes that conversations where a smartphone was used or even pulled out, were less satisfying as compared to those where no one during the conversation made any attempt to take out a mobile device.

“Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies,” the research team wrote in the journal. “In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds.”

“Both non-verbal and verbal elements of in-person communication are important for a focused and fulfilling conversation,” says Misra. “In the presence of a mobile device, there is less eye contact. A person is potentially more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and changes in the tone of their conversation partner’s voice when his or her thoughts are directed to other concerns.”

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Dr. James Roberts, Professor of Marketing at Baylor University and author of “Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone?” echoed Misra’s conclusions when he told Digital Trends:

“In a good conversation, the words we say are only one small part of the meaning that we convey, there’s also body language, tone of voice, facial expression.”

“When we send a text or email, or we post or tweet, we lose all but what is being said and so there is a lot of misinformation, miscommunication, and hurt feelings, because we don’t have those other sources of information that help us imbue some kind of meaning into what somebody is saying.”

Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor, during an interview promoting her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, said: “89 percent of Americans say that during their last social interaction, they took out a phone, and 82 percent said that it deteriorated the conversation they were in.”

“When some people start to feel insecure, they instantly look to their lifeline, their smartphone. They don’t realize that sometimes pregnant pauses and uncomfortable lulls in conversation are something to work through,” says Professor Roberts. “The mere presence of a phone undermines conversation quality.”

Leave alone public places and surveys and researches; if we just look around us and within our own homes, the growing trend will become more than apparent. Family discussions are dying out; siblings hardly converse with each other or with their parents; even couples in a relationship are busy with their individual devices most of the time when together – there is just no end to it. Checking your smartphone every now and then has become more of a reflex action than a voluntary activity.

While the aforementioned scenarios may be involuntary, smartphones have become a handy tool to intentionally avoid conversations and eye contact. Moreover, the additional features that are being continually added to the devices are compounding the issue. In the past when we wanted to take a picture of ourselves when alone, it was not uncommon to request a stranger to take the snapshot. Well, with the inclusion of the selfie camera even that interaction has become a thing of the past.

Talking about selfies, numerous deaths have been reported trying to get that perfect shot, particularly among the young generation. Also, everyone has heard some time or the other about injuries and deaths as a result of mobile device distractions.

While we have gone too far ahead even to contemplate doing away with the smartphone – and as mentioned earlier, nobody is even suggesting that – what we can and should do is become smart enough not to let the smartphone outsmart us and destroy our social lives or be the cause of any physical harm to ourselves.

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