How is social media affecting all communication? We live in a digital era. The contrast in communication between the natural environment and the digital world we currently live in seems obvious. But do we take the convenience of social connection through our devices for granted? How has this impacted our ability to understand and empathise with others on a deeper level? The discoveries by Suzanne Simard in connection and message transfer in the natural world made me reflect upon human forms of communication. The way we communicate has changed exponentially in the last thirty years, in comparison to human communication systems throughout the previous several thousand years. How are these rapid changes in connection affecting us?
In his book Born Digital, Robert Wigley examines the lives of Generation Z (humans born between 1997 and 2020.) His extensive research into the effects of digital interaction between humans is both informative and disturbing.
Wigley examines the effect of social media on empathy. He describes how the list of books now written about the current crisis in ‘empathy deficit’ is long and wide ranging. ‘Empathy also forms the basis for trust which is needed for proper and effective functioning of everything from relationships to economies.’ (Wigley, R. p89)
Expanding on the link to a lack of empathy through smartphones and our community connection, Wigley quotes Baptiste;
By relying on your smartphone to stay in contact with friends/family etc., you are reducing face to face contact with people. This is so important, as it allows that human connection to be understood in a conversation. If you can't see someone’s face or hear their voice when communicating it reduces the ability to gauge the situation, empathise or react accordingly. Instead, we are now reduced to showing our emotions through emojis ‘haha’ or, worse ‘LOL.’ This lack of face-to-face contact makes it really hard to fully involve yourself in a conversation. (ref)
Wigley researches a list of books on empathy deficit, one of the most persuasive by professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the Cambridge clinical psychologist specialising in autism and its link with a lack of empathy. Baron Cohen argues that empathy is a universal solvent:
‘it is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is marital conflict conflict and international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in friendships, political deadlines, a family dispute or a problem with a neighbour.’ (Simon Baron-Cohen, 2011).
‘in other words empathy is our glue. It binds us together.’(Wigley, R p88)
It is the phrase 'binds us together' that made me reflect upon the idea of connecting and whether the convenience of digital technology can inhibit this? Does our reliance on smartphones affect our mental health? Wigley examines the effects of interaction through devices: ‘We have examined how social media, while appearing to connect people, actually leads to less face to FaceTime and can affect mental well-being.’ (Wigley, R. p89)
I have used the experience gained from my professional career onstage and teaching, to create a simple programme to trial with my colleagues in the masters using voice, sound and rhythm to connect a group to communicate. Coming from a theatrical background, how could I create a methodology based on objective results rather than my subjective experience?
I was able to trial the communication and voice work in the retail sector when John Lewis encouraged me to begin the workshops with younger employees who needed to find confidence to approach customers. I developed a 5-point communication program (5PCP) with training techniques linked to the acronym for VOICE to help students that had never worked in theatre to remember it. Each technique linked to a letter in the acronym:
The photo enclosed was the hard copy used in the sessions corresponding to each letter for reference. The work with deep breathing and connecting to the voice through text and rhythm succeeded in connecting the students to one another, calming their anxiety to participate fully. Many of the students used the techniques within their working day- the managers commented on a marked improvement in their approach and manner with customers.
Following the sessions in John Lewis I made a series of VLOGS to assess the progress in communication and to look more deeply into the research and the evolving methodology. ( please find the link to the VLOG series and interview with manager Jess Cross in the YouTube icon in the menu bar at the top of each page.)
Interestingly after I conducted the voice workshops, I discovered Wigley’s book and his research echoed the concepts for the methodology I was creating, particularly regarding his view on empathy. When describing how technology and societal trends have caused a decline in the number of situations where empathy can survive Wigley (2022) adds this;
Mastering empathy is also a key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership. The consortium for Emotional Intelligence in Organisations reports a correlation between empathy in salespeople and increased sales. (Wigley, R. p91)
To answer some of the questions I had about the long-term effects of technology on Generation Z, I conducted some interviews with students I work with and some teenagers at my daughter’s school.
I asked the following questions (the responses are underneath)
What do you like/dislike about social media? Why?
Social media allows me to keep in contact with people I may not otherwise have the opportunity to, such as international friends I have made at University and family living abroad. What I dislike is that it doesn't easily allow you to escape or take a break from society. It's a form of connecting with people but doesn't allow you to escape from people. It can be quite draining.
What are the most positive aspects of working online during your studies?
Working online meant I didn't have to enter potentially dangerous spaces, such as when I was at University during the pandemic.
How does social media help you communicate?
It helps with keeping in contact but also to promote my art through my instagram page.
If you could choose to live with/without technology which would you chose and why?"
I would chose to live with technology as my future work will be in tech, this is why I would like to keep it in my life! I also think it brings a great source of entertainment. The thought of living without technology is such a strange concept as it is so prominent in our lives.
If you were to travel back in time what would you miss most about technology?
I would miss the convenience of knowing what is coming next, such as the weather, what to wear, etc.
Why I am comparing the two differing forms of communication? Do they have any relevance to each other? From the interviews students confirmed they relied on technology to keep in contact with others and found it hard to escape from. They also confirmed their reliance on it as it is so prominent in their lives.
With technology so entwined within the fabric of our lives how are we to find a balance and do we need to? Wigley's book seems to confirm Generation Z could lose a deeper understanding of emotions such as empathy with the conversion to contact through devices creating a lack of physical contact and increasing the rapid pace of interaction.
I believe there is an energy and reciprocity gained from being in the physical presence of another when communicating. As stated in Simard’s book, nature’s interconnection is used to benefit the community, young and old, to further the species. Are we missing a deeper sense of unity and are we generating a lack of empathy with our reliance on technology? Or is technology enabling communication that would not otherwise happen at all?
I began to consider how I could mindmap these questions into a theatrical installation. In Born Digital, Wigley comments on Generation Z’s awareness that digital distractions can affect their relationships, in a study conducted by Sodhexo almost a third of college students would be interested in taking classes in mindfulness. What does this mean?
‘According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindful listening involves ‘paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.' (Wigley, R. p91)
Could another phrase be used for empathetic communication? Something such as ‘invested connection?’ Or ‘intentional connection?’
Could I advance the work in the 5PCP in the retail environment and extend it into further areas by simplifying it further, to focus our attention on each other by using breathing techniques to ground us and build awareness of invested connection? How can I add in scenography on a simple level to encourage receptivity?
What practical form would best convey these concepts?
LINK: Please click the tree here to return to the Masters page, the Final Installation for some of the answers and further discoveries.
V - The students were asked to deep breathe in a circle, for four counts in through the nose and out through the mouth and repeat. Their attention was drawn to the core of their breathing, they discovered where their breathing was rooted and how their voice was supported through their breath and the connection to their diaphragm.
O - They were then asked to observe their own physicality and that of other students.
I - Then to introspectively consider their reaction when approaching a customer in the store and how they may adapt this.
C -To involve communication, I used some of the techniques in rhythm and sound developed in the Masters workshop at Middlesex, but this time with changes in rhythm applied to improvised customer service scenarios.
E - Finally we considered the word ‘empathy’ and discussed their understanding of this, then how to adapt aspects of this into their everyday interaction with customers and their fellow staff members.