Eons ago, an evolutionary shift took root that would change the human story. In fact, it would write it. I’m talking of course about the capacity for complex language. The development spurred collaborative ability and, as a result, social organization. Where visceral reality once ruled, other conceptual layers came into play—cosmological narratives, genealogical stories, inter-band negotiations just to get things started. Perhaps rudimentary drawings or food offerings might have put us on a path to the above, but it wasn’t until language that these came to real fruition. With language, culture and all that comes with it was born. The ability to communicate didn’t eradicate raw instinct by any means, but it spoke back to it and opened up options for human social connection.
We rely on communication for all we do—how we parent, how we lead, how we love, how we navigate the world and all of our relationships. And, yet, it’s no secret that we’re doing our communicative talents no favors these days. From the filter of technology to the culture of busy, we’re seem to be backing ourselves into our virtual, isolated corners more and more.
Sherry Turkle, a writer and researcher I mention in Primal Connection, studies digital culture and its effect on human communication. “Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other,” she writes. With even phone calls now being seen as intrusive, we live with increasing layers between ourselves and those we love or work with.
Human history around communication could easily have its own Smithsonian (e.g. everything from calling cards to rotary dial phones to stone tablets), but we’re always after the prehistory here. What did it look like in Grok’s day? It can boggle the mind to think we’re hearkening back to the advent of oral tradition. Never mind smart phone technology. We’re talking about a time even before more basic written exchange. All communication was face to face, eye to eye, in the full display of physical as well as verbal expression.
Is it any wonder kids these days, increasingly plugged into screens during and after school, are losing the ability to read emotions? Even we adults, who may pride ourselves having grown up old school, are running ourselves distracted. While 90% of communication isn’t necessarily non-verbal, we kid ourselves to think words (even for the most eloquent among us) and emojis are just as good as genuine, undistracted face time.
A few weeks ago I saw a social media meme that said technology can bring us closer to those far away and can distance us from those in our presence. The Primal (as opposed to raw Paleolithic) principle holds here: we enjoy and apply the best tools of modern times for the most convenient and most fulfilling experience of a life centered around what nourishes our inherent human needs—social communication being one of these.
I fully get it. Families spread over multiple states if not countries. Company employees span the globe. I see it in my own circles—both social and business. Most of the time, I work from home since it makes more sense for my current setup. None of this changes our need for communication, but it sure does take us far from our Primal traditions.
Every day we deal with utilitarian obligations (gotta work and earn money in the networked world) and with evolutionarily novel circumstances (Grandma and Grandpa live five states away). Yet, I think we can simultaneously make the best of our situations and know we can expect more from ourselves and others.
They say communication isn’t just about what you say but how you make another person feel. (Which part do you think the mind remembers most?) When we look at it this way, at issue isn’t just the mode of communication but the quality of connection that takes place.
Our schedules (or mindsets) can make us so tired and overwrought that communication can feel like a chore. From 5-minute fairy tales for our kids to cryptic texts to our partners or friends, we’re losing the forest through the trees. If a child or friend makes a telling facial expression and no one looks up (e.g. from a laptop or dinner prep) to witness it, did it really happen? Good communication can be as much a question of life balance as it is technology dependence. Do our ways of communicating support our ability to relate successfully and intimately? Do they serve our happiness and the happiness of those we care about?
In that spirit, I want to throw out a few ideas (some work oriented, others family/friend focused, some practical, some conceptual)—a few Primal-minded ways we can both communicate and connect better—because I think Grok would remind us it’s less about skill and more about purpose (and that purpose largely directs skill).
If you make one change, let this be it. I’ve written about tech fasting in the past as a means of living in the physical, present moment. Get your head out of your smartphone and into conversation with the world around you. You’ll not only hear the words others are trying to share with you, but you’ll pick up on cues you likely too often miss—the subtle facial expressions and body language that tells you your spouse really loves you or your daughter needs you now or an ailing friend or parent isn’t doing as well as he/she has let on. It’s a great reminder that technology can be as much a barrier to communication as it is a tool for it.
How easy it is to forget that we can literally just sit with someone and be in silence with them. Hunter-gatherer groups didn’t and don’t today live with the cacophony of blabbing that we do. Silence speaks. Presence listens. This is something even older generation of “regular” people understand, I think. As silence becomes rarer, so does our appreciation for its significance.
Kids love to hear stories—and not just the fantastical stuff of princesses and knights, monsters, aliens and animals that talk. One of the fun things about grandparents is the stories they’ve amassed—about mom or dad as a youngling, about themselves, about historical events, about life before X, Y, Z invention or with whatever war or scourge inspires vicarious horror in a child’s imagination.
The best speakers—whether they be preachers or politicians, teachers or business leaders—know how to employ stories to their end. Stories are entertaining. They’re absorbing. And they often communicate points better than any directive you could ever come up with.
In Grok’s time—and even into the first few thousand years of semi-recorded history—morality, convention and religion were communicated through story rather than law. It was part of the vast oral tradition that encompassed everything from Aboriginal cautionary tales to the early Greeks.
There’s something humble about telling through story rather than dictate. As mythological scholars can tell you, our imaginations can stretch to comprehend vaster, deeper and more challenging concepts through the vehicle of metaphor and story than through any other means. Symbolic language can take us places literal language can’t.
When I was young it was customary for extended families to gather once a year for a big get-together. Cousins, grandparents, distant aunts and uncles would all gather for the annual steak-fry or barbecue on someone’s farm or at a local church. The kids joined up for their own adventures while the adults “visited” over coffee, beer and the buffet tables.
These days I think you see less of this—although I do occasionally run into big gatherings at hotels with dozens or even hundreds of laughing, embracing people all wearing that year’s official family reunion t-shirt. It’s a sight to behold, and it’s probably not all that distant a tradition from what Grok’s kin might have experienced during certain parts of the year when gathering was easier.
How often do we settle for Christmas cards (often electronic) and call it good anymore? Those cards as well as social media shares will mean a lot more if once a year (or more) you make the commitment to be together in the flesh. While social media and phone calls can help maintain a continuity, presence preserves intimacy.
Being a good communicator isn’t about making sure every exchange happens in person or that every email goes into protracted displays of emotional sensitivity. It’s about balancing the overall call for connection with the situational benefits of expedience. When it comes to work as well as family, it’s important to build a strong foundation of communication, trust and collaboration. Sure, people will do their basic jobs in order to be paid, but most of us (whether we’re on the leadership or the staff side) hope for a bigger, more fulfilling investment. The way to get that isn’t forceful directives or stale training. I find it’s often about getting people out of the office.
I’m not talking about a day long series of Power Point lectures with catered lunch in the adjacent corporate building. I mean an experience that gets people out of their typical roles and into something totally novel. Sometimes that might be a week in a resort cabin with climbing or kayaking lessons. It could be your team taking on a service project like a week of Habitat for Humanity work.
Whatever the choice, it should have no connection to the workplace. It should be an egalitarian affair. And it should be more than just a couple days. Within that space, you’ll all get to see different sides of each other, as well as appreciate new skills or characteristics of one another. By the end, the typical mode of relating will be cracked open. You’ll have established an intimacy from experience shared and built a trust that can color future communication and collaboration among those on your team.
The fact is, sometimes we can’t be together, but here’s a case in which modern technology can help us get a little closer to the real deal. Whether it’s a weekly staff meeting (how many people telecommute these days?) or a call to the grandparents, the visual aspect of greeting and conversation is invaluable to feeling connected and included. In practical terms, it’s also much easier for the person “phoning in” for a group conversation if he/she can see who’s talking. Who agrees with me there?
It’s well known we’re a stingy bunch in Western society. Other cultures tend to be much more hands on than ours when it comes to showing affection, and the same is true of observed hunter-gatherer societies.
Obviously, we navigate what’s acceptable versus unacceptable in the workplace, but among those in our family or social circles, could we be more demonstrative than we typically are? Could we offer more hugs or a quick squeeze of the shoulders? What about a kiss goodbye in the morning? How often do we hold the hand of our child these days? Would we be willing to take our mother’s arm as we walk with her? When we remember the purpose of communication is ultimately relating, we understand how important physical touch can be.
Restaurant servers and flight attendants are among those trained to look their customers in the eye. It’s part of their job because a key aspect of their work is making people feel welcome and valued. Sometimes those of us in jobs less explicitly service oriented forget the impact of that simple behavior. Looking someone in the eye literally says, “I see you.”
How many of our conversations do we go through in a day—probably more so at home than at work—when we fail to even look the other person in the eye? Do we yell to our kids across the house to wash their hands and come eat, or do we take a minute to visit them in their rooms, get down on their levels, look them in the eye while lightly touching their shoulders and tell them it’s time to eat?
Do we stop what we’re doing and face them with an interested and quiet expression while they tell us about their day? Do we offer the same courtesy to our partners?
How do we look when we’re sitting in a meeting? Are we slouched back in our chairs, doodling on the pads in front of us, or are we focused attentively on the speaker? Do we compulsively sit hunched with crossed arms and a disinterested scowl at our in-laws? Guess what. Grok’s family wouldn’t have liked you either and very possibly would’ve taken you to task over it.
Here’s the cut-to-the-chase Primal principle: take responsibility for the energy you give off.
Because technology diminishes or omits the input of facial expression and body language—what I’d call the social checks and balances of face-to-face communication, the onus is obviously on our words. When you add in the fast pace we fly by these days, we’re looking at a pretty high likelihood for miscommunication or at least the risk of not communicating our full intent—most likely the emotion behind our request or comment (always the most tricky and nuanced part).
The drive for efficiency can move us to take shortcuts in our communication, and what seemed utilitarian at the time can later strike us (too late for the recipient) as brusk and dismissive.
Is the one extra minute or two it would’ve taken to think through or re-read worth the happiness of a partner or child or the morale of a staff member? Get some Grok-style perspective and know that some things are worth your time investment.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your thoughts on the state of communication as you see it, and enjoy the end to your week.
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