Are social skills silently fading away?

A few months ago I made a list of what I believe to be the fundamental skills every professional communicator should have in order to succeed. It’s a good list, but now I feel that I left out a skill that’s not only crucial for communicators, but for people in all walks of life: Social interaction. In real life. Not online.

A few things caused me to realize the importance of social interaction as a business and personal skill.

One was a holiday conversation with members of my family, some of whom have Facebook pages and use them regularly and some of whom do not. One of my sisters questioned the value of Facebook and said, “I don’t have the time for it. I’m busy enough trying to keep up with my life as it is.” As a regular Facebook user, I pointed out that it helps me manage my friendships and adds a certain depth to them that I otherwise would not experience.

But I have to admit that it would be very easy to slip into what author and “lifetyle expert” Judith Wright calls a “soft addiction” to Facebook — or Twitter or e-mail or any other electronic media, for that matter. An interesting article by Melissa Ruggieri in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch looked at this phenomenon. She quotes Wright as saying a soft addiction is a seemingly harmless activity that negatively affects the way we live.

So if you find yourself constantly checking Facebook, Twitter or e-mail or if you feel anxious when you can’t do so, you might have a soft addiction to them. If your participation in social media — or in any other activity — keeps you from developing and nurturing real-life, face-to-face relationships with friends and family, then things might just be a bit out of hand.

Another holiday conversation brought this point back to the communication profession. In a much-too-rare visit with my mentor and best friend Les Potter, our talk turned to the future communicators he teaches in the Department of Mass Communication & Communication Studies at Towson University. Les continuously reinforces the importance of “face time” and the interpersonal social skills that his students will need when they join the workforce — even as they use social media tools in their profession. Nothing replaces real-life interaction for quality of communication. Body language, tone of voice and human warmth simply cannot be replicated online.

Les also bemoaned his experience at last year’s IABC World Conference — not because the program lacked quality, but because the hallway conversations, the impromptu discussions at the hotel lobby bar and the camaraderie that once were highlights of the annual event were missing. “Everyone was buried in their cell phones, texting and tweeting,” Les said. “People didn’t pay attention to the other people around them. I felt invisible.”

Anyone who knows Les knows that he doesn’t require constant attention or validation. But who can blame him for feeling walled out of his professional colleagues’ electronic worlds?

I believe social media have great value in the new communication landscape. They are changing the way business is transacted and they are changing the way we communicators do our jobs. They offer many benefits in terms of creating niche communities and bringing far-flung people together. I love keeping in touch with family, friends and business colleagues through social media.

However, I fear the art of social interaction is being lost as a result of too much reliance on social media. And I believe instructors of the next generation of communicators — and of business people in general — and stewards of our profession have an obligation to ensure social interaction skills don’t silently fade away.


3 Responses

  1. Robert, thank you for this insightful piece about social communication, and the important difference between communicating via text, Facebook, etc, and an in-person conversation. I agree social interaction is a vital skill that should not be lost.

    Instructors in communication should certainly be instructing in people skills and relationship cultivation. These are especially valuable lessons for those just coming out of college. They’ll need to learn how to create long-term, in-person relationships that can’t be facilitated by Facebook, email, or texting. I am not saying the latter is bad; they are actually good to increase and enhance an already strong relationship, as you observe. But they are not and should not be the foundation.

    Even with all our technological enhancements and analytical tools, we’ll never achieve true efficiency and lasting results, unless we focus on people. The quicker we move, the more we’ll need to focus on people. We can’t skirt over the fact that longterm relationships of trust are what make the best businesses hum.

    And that doesn’t take analysis. It doesn’t take technology. It takes a commitment to qualities of increased understanding, excellent listening skills, and helping others achieve their goals as well as those of the organizations. And much of that requires, or at the least is enhanced by, in-person meetings. The phone is good because at least you have voices, but meeting in-person, making eye contact and seeing body language…that’s a valuable connection that shouldn’t be lost.

    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO

    Living and Giving blog

    • Thank you for your comments, Pamela. I agree with what you’ve said. And it’s important for communicators to remember that a good communication plan includes a mix of media — including good old face-to-face. Putting all our eggs in any one basket — whether that’s social media or electronic or print or even face-to-face — is not a wise move.

  2. […] written before that I believe social media are robbing the next generation of social skills. We’re losing the […]

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