The Costs of Digital Communication: A Q&A with Sherry Turkle

What has texting done to our ability to talk?

By Feb 1, 2016
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People would rather text than talk. That’s what Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle found in her research as she completed her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011). That insight led her to study what would become the topic of her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015)—that is, the consequences of our increasing desire to avoid face-to-face interactions.

Turkle, who will be a featured speaker at the 2016 HR People + Strategy Annual Conference in April in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a clinical psychologist and expert in the social study of science and technology. Here, she shares why digital-only communication isn’t just bad for relationships—it’s bad for business.

How has communication changed over the past decade?

We are moving away from in-person conversation. People would rather edit what they say on a screen. They don’t like the spontaneity and vulnerability of personal communication because it’s in real time and they can’t control it.

Even when we do talk face to face, we are dividing our attention between the people in the room and the ones on our phones. Communication continues, but in a fragmented way. We have gotten into the habit of putting people “on pause” to respond to a text.

What are the consequences of this shifting focus?

First, the quality of our exchanges decreases. In an experiment where a silent phone was put on a table between two people, the discussion shifted to more-trivial topics. That makes sense: No one wanted to pursue deeper subjects because the phone symbolized the possibility of being interrupted.

Second, our degree of commitment to the other person in the conversation drops.

Third, there’s a loss of engagement and shared experience. At many companies, it’s become commonplace for people to read e-mail during meetings. That means we are systematically denying each other our attention—and we know it. We don’t have the sense of community that comes from participating together.

What are the business advantages of face-to-face communication?

Workers at companies that encourage conversations are more productive. They’re happier, too. Part of what energizes them to come to work, what motivates them, is the face-to-face interaction with other people. Some organizations have underestimated the pleasure that employees take in being part of a community and how much valuable information they learn in spontaneous chats at the water cooler.

When I asked CEOs of large firms and small-business owners which interactions require in-person meetings, I got similar answers. They said meetings are needed to close a deal, for a significant apology and to establish trust. Yet one law firm studied who was bringing in the most business, and it was the lawyers who met with clients personally. Companies are starting to recognize the simple power of human contact.

Why is digital communication so attractive to people in the workplace?

Workers feel overwhelmed by the demands on them. They believe that if they stay isolated behind their screens—like pilots in a cockpit—they will be better able to do their work. They don’t think they can risk a conversation they can’t control and that might go on too long. They are panicked by “real time.” To protect themselves, they stay in their cockpits.

Is videoconferencing equivalent to face-to-face communication?

No. In conversation, eye contact is crucial. To give the impression of eye contact on Skype, I have to stare at the little camera on the top of my computer screen. In other words, in order to create an illusion of a meaningful connection, I end up seeing nothing. Of course, when people are scattered, videoconferencing is unavoidable. You have to be practical and use the tools available. What I am arguing against is what has become commonplace—for example, e-mailing “I’m sorry” to someone down the hall instead of taking the risk of having that exchange personally.

Do older employees favor person-to-person conversation?

Not necessarily. I expected a significant age difference in attitudes about technology, but that wasn’t always the case. Across generations, we are tempted by this new way of life. I found 60-year-old lawyers and CEOs who had retreated to the comfort of connecting with people through screens.

One striking finding is that many younger people don’t even know how to have face-to-face conversations. Their parents were on phones during meals and didn’t fully pay attention. When with friends, younger people are together but also on their devices. It is often at work that they learn the importance of personal discussions.

How can HR professionals encourage face-to-face exchanges?

Nurture them by making it clear that you know their business value. Research shows that talking in person enhances productivity and creativity. It’s also good for the bottom line. Communicate this within your firm. Make it part of employees’ performance reviews. For instance, some companies require employees to take clients to lunch a certain number of times per month or quarter.

Make sure there are physical spaces for dialogue and places to congregate, like a dining room with a cappuccino machine and conversational seating. But carving out physical space is not enough. You must cultivate leadership that will work to create a culture that encourages personal interactions. Be a mentor for that and make it clear that employees don’t have to be on their e-mail 24/7.

HR can also support a work culture where meetings are device-free. Ask employees to leave their smartphones and laptops at the door. At first, this might be hard, but it becomes rewarding as people become more present in the room. Making conversation an explicit value means recognizing when our best business interests conflict with our desire to stay on the phone.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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