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A little MORE conversation

Mrs Sybil Edwards, Lilley Head of House

Conversation is one of the loveliest arts (Oscar Wilde)

Is there a more depressing sight than a family or group of friends sitting together in physical proximity but emotionally miles apart, as they stare silently into screens? With phones and computers infiltrating every aspect of our lives, it is not surprising that parents and teachers sometimes worry that young people are gradually losing those powerful skills of good old-fashioned conversation as they succumb to a world of texting and social media. These skills are not inconsequential or trivial but rather are the key to many of life’s successes, helping to forge strong relationships both personally and in the workplace. Strong social ties generally shield people from life’s tribulations and the ability to converse is an important factor in developing those ties. While conversation comes naturally to many, it is nevertheless a skill that can be taught and practiced. Schools, alongside parents, can assist students to become more adept conversationalists by exposing them to social situations and even giving explicit tips.

Is this perception that today’s youngsters are lacking in conversation skills just an unproven example of generational divide? Many studies have, in fact, proven that the use of technology has had a negative effect on closeness, connection and conversation quality. One study suggests that the decrease in the amount of time youth spend interacting face-to-face may eventually have significant consequences for their development of social skills and their presentation of self (Brignall and Van Valey, 2005).  Another field study observed a large number of university students eating lunch with friends but neglecting to engage in any conversation. Seventy-three per cent sat with other students but spent their time texting or using their computers or tablets (Drago, 2015). It would be a sad sight indeed if our Year 12 tables were filled with girls staring at phones or computers instead of lively lunchtime banter.

Socially confident students seem to be able to use technology without it overly affecting their verbal interactions, and in fact can use media to become even more social. It is those more reticent types who tend to hide behind their screens and shy away from conversation. We have all seen socially awkward students using their screens as a crutch in the way that some may have used a book in the past. It is just so easy to shield oneself from uncomfortable social situations by using a phone to avoid eye contact with another person and consequently some students seem to have trouble initiating interactions or coping with spontaneous conversations. Parents and teachers can help reluctant raconteurs by giving them opportunities to speak in different social settings. Simple family gatherings, dinners with grandparents and interacting with parents’ friends and work colleagues without the crutch of a phone, are some ways that parents can ensure that their children are being exposed to interactions with people of different ages and backgrounds.

In Year 10, our students are expected to do fifteen hours of community service and must arrange this placement themselves. Picking up a phone and speaking to a stranger to organise the details is a daunting task for many students. They rarely have to speak on the phone to people they don’t know – unlike in their parents’ day (pre text and email) when teenagers would often have to speak on the phone – to plan social outings, make bookings, to ask a friend on a date, etc. To arrange their service placement, many students feel compelled to use the script provided for them and practice their little speech numerous times before ringing. Although email would be the students’ preferred communication method, placing them in this awkward situation is just another way to stretch their communication skills.

Those students who are overly attached to their devices, who experience friendships through social media rather than face-to-face interactions, miss out on valuable practice when it comes to understanding the nuances of human conversation. Understanding non-verbal cues such as fidgeting, subtle facial expressions and eye contact takes experience and practice. It can be obvious to teachers which of their students lack conversation skills as class discussions put spotlights on individuals. Some students are very reluctant to join in and find it difficult to spontaneously express their thoughts, while others like to take the floor at any opportunity. It mirrors what happens in personal conversations; we have all experienced the stilted conversation of a person who only answers our questions with one word replies and conversely, we have suffered through boring monologues, unable to get a word in. Reading the atmosphere of a room, knowing when it’s appropriate to contribute and when to ’wind up‘ a story, are skills which students can practice under their teachers’ guidance and hopefully these skills can be translated into everyday life.

At the end of the year, in preparation for their leadership journey, Year 11s spend a day with Peer Power, an educational organisation that has delivered seminars in Queensland schools for three decades. One Peer Power session raises awareness about the impact that investing in relationships has on the students’ ability to lead. Facilitators encourage the students to value social networks and give explicit tips about how to strengthen connections. Maintaining eye contact, smiling and calling people by name are just three very simple practices that can make a huge difference to building relationships across the entire School. With the prospect of spending time with their Year 7 buddies looming in the new year, one important session focusses on the art of conversation. Students are taught to dig deeper into topics, to listen and ask questions instead of flitting from one topic to the next. The girls practice these skills by conversing with a relative stranger in their Year; hopefully, this exercise is valuable in the following January when they met their nervous Year 7 buddies for the first time.

Mobile phones, computers and other devices are here to stay, and admittedly they have made communication fast and easy (what would we do without texts, emails and memes?).  Nothing, however, really beats a sparkling face-to-face conversation and therefore we must keep pushing our students to drag their eyes away from their screens and talk.

References

Bindley, K. (2011). When Children Text All Day, What Happens to their Social Skills. Huffington Post, 9 Dec 2011

Brignall, T., Van Valey, T. (2005). The Impact of Internet Communications on Social Interaction. Sociological Spectrum, 25(3), 335-348.

Drago, E. (2015). The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication [Abstract]. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research, 6 (Spring).

Lengacher, L. (2015). Mobile Technology – Its effect on Face-to-Face Communication and Interpersonal Interaction. Undergraduate Research Journal Blog.

Przybylski, A., Weinstein, N. (2012). Can You Connect With Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-To-Face Conversation Quality. [Abstract]. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237-246.

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