Do Digital Natives Really Suck at Communicating Face-to-Face

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You grew up texting and friending, so you have demon fast thumbs, a relaxed attitude toward online privacy and a baked in familiarity with the web. In other words, you're a digital native.

That's what a recent post on the HBR blogs by government executive John K. Mullen says, anyway. In it, Mullen warns Millennials that “the internet may have partially rewired your brain in such a way that when you meet people face to face, you're less capable of figuring out what they're thinking” because you're less skilled at picking up verbal and body language clues.

Research suggests that excessive, long-term exposure to electronic environments is reconfiguring young people's neural networks and possibly diminishing their ability to develop empathy, interpersonal relations, and nonverbal communication skills. One study indicates that because there's only so much time in the day, face-to-face interaction time drops by nearly 30 minutes for every hour a person spends on a computer. With more time devoted to computers and less to in-person interactions, young people may be understimulating and underdeveloping the neural pathways necessary for honing social skills. Another study shows that after long periods of time on the internet, digital natives display poor eye contact and a reluctance to interact socially.

Could this possibly be true? Author Stever Robbins has previously complained about the same phenomenon to me in an interview, saying “there are an awful lot of people under the age of 25 who spend an inordinate amount of time communicating via text and email, and they do it even when they should be working. Get that under control.”

Robbins cited a young person he worked with who was reluctant to speak in person and constantly wanted to text instead, which Robbins felt stunted their relationship and made him less likely to help advance this young colleague's career.

That offers a clue to what might be going on here. Gen Yers shake their heads in disbelief when we're told we lack empathy because most of us don't experience our friends and peers as lacking understanding or being frustrating to communicate with. But remember, even if these studies don't pan out under close examination, and even if your brain is not all that different from your parents’, you still have to interact with older, less digitally immersed generations at work.

Like Robbins and his young colleague, this can cause a clash of expectations and styles (and maybe even hold back your career). Your brain is just probably fine, but that doesn't mean you won't annoy your middle-aged boss if you try to use the same communication style with him that you do with your friends.

But fret not, both Mullen and Robbins offer tips to help you blend in. Mullen's emphasis is on learning what older generations expect in terms of face-to-face meetings like interviews. He suggests:

Your interviewer may be specifically looking for evidence that you're willing to make eye contact. Engage the interviewer – show a lively interest. This may not come easily.

Make clear that you understand the importance of face-to-face meetings and that you're willing to sit down with people. If an interviewer or a questionnaire asks how you'd contact someone in a potentially fraught situation, don't assume that email is the correct answer.

Develop empathy, especially if the thought scares you. Commit to spending two weeks without using your cell phone. And without texting and tweeting. Do all of your communications by planning in advance and by meeting up with people and doing face-to-face interactions. If you can't do that for two weeks to a month, seriously fix that, because it is simply the case that the way human beings are wired, the way relationships get formed is face to face. Relationships do not get formed textually. Very shallow relationships do, but the people you're going to depend on for big breaks are going to be people you have relationships with and not necessarily the people you tweet with all the time.

Do you think young people need to train themselves to match the communication expectations of older professionals?

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for and GigaOM.

Brazen Life is a lifestyle and career blog for ambitious young professionals. Hosted by Brazen Careerist, we offer edgy and fun ideas for navigating the changing world of work — this isn't your parents’ career-advice blog. Be Brazen.

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