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  • Laura Terlizzi

The Impact of Silent Communication

Is your office a no-device zone? Do you insist that all cell phones be put away or turned off prior to a session starting? On the door of my doctor’s office, there’s a sign that repeats a message found in his intake forms. It reads: “Absolutely no cell phones or devices allowed.”

As counsellors, would you agree that the ability to effectively communicate is essential? That pivotal, are both our skills to convey as well as understand messages? Whether we are working with someone who cannot wait to divulge every single detail of every single experience, or with someone who uncomfortably shifts and fidgets while forcing themselves to answer an open-ended question with more than two syllables following an obligatory grunt; and every personality or situation in between. I would say, vital, is our capacity to identify and efficaciously facilitate a communication style that supports healing, development and growth.

But then, once the counselling sessions end and we become immersed within our own personal lives and world, how are we as communicators? Do we, or are we, able to employ these same communication skills when we are just another member of society?

Are we part of the masses? A society that has become not only completely attached and too often addicted to electronic devices being used as a primary method of communication; but also, increasingly numb to what is our brain’s natural, neurological system which is meant to be used for collaborative communicating.

Are you of the generation that remembers the song, “The Sound of Silence”?

Personally, I find the most profound and reflective version of the 1964 Simon and Garfunkel song is the 2009 live performance at Madison Square Garden, New York. And whether you’re now singing it in your head or are not familiar with it at all, I encourage you to take a moment, preferably an undistracted non-multitasking one, to not only listen to the music but also watch the performance.

You may start to unpack the simple and natural use of words, sounds, facial expressions and body movement used to convey the simplistic complexity of the message. Immediately prior to the opening line of the song, there is a beautiful example of a visceral greeting and obvious connection made between the two musicians before they then begin to perform and continue to construct the same relationship with the audience. A building of connection which started as soon as they appeared on stage and for all intense purposes had, in actuality, began decades before.

As with most pieces of this calibre, people are touched by it in different ways and take from it, different meanings. Some people equate it to feelings of depression. It was written over a period of months, by a then 21-year-old Paul Simon, who would sit in the dark upon his tiled bathroom floor with the soothing sound of water trickling from the facet. It’s said that this was not because he was depressed but rather that the acoustics were best in that location. In one interview he claimed, “It was a post-adolescent angst which had some truth that resonated with millions of people” (songfacts.com). There’s an old video clip from the television show, “Let’s Sing Out” wherein Simon briefly explains the song prior to the duo performing it in front of a live audience on February 17, 1966. “One of the biggest hang-ups we have today is the inability of people to communicate, not only on an intellectual level but on an emotional level as well. So, you have people unable to touch other people, unable to love other people. This is a song about the inability to communicate.” (Paul Simon 1966) (madlyodd.com)

Being that Simon was in New York and the duo became cultural icons of the 1960’s social revolution, one can presume that the mention of a Neon God likely referred to the constant display of commercialism over-riding the need for compassion, brotherly love…….humanity.

What I find compelling, is how relevant the lyrics are still today, some 55 years later. I find it relevant in terms of how society communicates and subsequently relate to one another.

It’s not difficult to read between lines or establish what could be symbolic metaphors. And if an intermediary with humanity was delivering messages or teaching from a supernatural source in order to give us more insightfulness, then the line, “the words of the prophets were written”, could easily be evaluated through a much deeper lens of philosophical density than that of which I could give justice to.

Last year, an accident I had, resulted in a concussion that left me unable to use a cell phone or any type of electronic device for a few months. The light being emitted from the devices was simply too much for my eyes and brain to manage. It was not only the brightness, even on the lowest setting possible, but the type of light.

I am a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to understanding the science or mechanics behind how electronic devices work. In fact, if we were to compare my abilities around devices to, let’s say cooking, then I would be the person struggling to boil an egg and not burn the toast!

But what I do know is how unbearable it was to look at screens. Like staring directly at the sun. What I have now learned is that the light on devices is produced when high-velocity electrons hit the fluorescent layer on the inside of the glass. And LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) behind a few layers of translucent foil (red, blue, green) density is determined by their electrical resistance.

(Sigh)….this is like speaking Swahili to me; I’d need a translator! And with technology advancing at, well, the speed of light; please excuse my ignorance if this description is lacking or now outdated. The message, however, remains the same.

You may now be asking…..so, what’s the point?! That question brings me back to the less subtle song lyrics which I think mirror life as we know it today.

“The people bowed and prayed to the neon God they made”, and, “when my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, that split the night, and touched the sound of silence”.

Do you, like I, go to bed at night with your cell phone, or other devices, right beside you? Do you habitually, or ritualistically check it, or use it last thing at night, first thing in the morning and every time it makes a sound or flashes a light? Every time it demands we respond to the regimented training that we have unconsciously, unwittingly allowed ourselves to be governed by?

Next lines in the song…. “And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people maybe more, people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening”.

Have our devices also become our vices? Are we, collectively as a society, bowing to a neon, (or LED) god we hold close to us, day and night, no matter where we are or what we are doing? Are we holding too dear to us, the connection to our devices and/or the links we think we are making with the help of our artificially intelligent friend, Siri? And has society’s’ relationship with same taken priority over the relationships we have with each other and with ourselves?

It crushes me to see a parent not only ignore their young child whilst they, the parent, keep busy with their thumbs typing at quick-fire speed, but that the child too, is completely engaged within their own electronic world. A world that could debatably be making us humans, less intelligent. Not less capable, but less motivated to use our capabilities. In this world, toddlers can swipe with confidence, yet school age children are struggling to read and write.

I don’t know how many times I hear myself say to my teenage son, “don’t get the phone to do your thinking for you.” This, after he has asked Siri a question that he could have easily typed in and searched for himself. I know my own brain has become less involved in the task of writing. It’s easier and faster and I do rely heavily upon the convenience of instantaneous grammatical corrections such as for spelling. We no longer need to figure out how to form words never mind sentences. And math calculations…..well….do you recall the days, long before a phone could be scanned or a card tapped? When the person behind the coffee counter had to handle cash and count back your change rather than pushing a button or simply dump money into the hand of a customer who is left having to trust that the clerk has given the correct amount.

Normality now is the visual of human beings with a device attached to their every function. Just as a body part would be. However, is that which is normal the same as that which is natural?

It is normal now, to see people of every age, out to dinner together, riding in cars together, sitting in a waiting room together, having coffee together, yet not saying more than a few broken words to each other because they are each busy on their personal device. Connecting for hours to hundreds of people categorized as friends, or thousands of followers; yet unable to pass dedicated time to the people there with them in person. This has become normality, but is it natural and is it healthy?

The words, “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening” could easily relate to the use of electronic messaging. Just as, “ten thousand people” certainly parallels with social media.

With having a concussion, what immediately became undeniably evident, was the impact that such devices have had on our innate need to communicate. Additionally, the effect on our inborn, essential ways that we communicate in order to facilitate and maintain human development which supports healthy relationships. Even in the simple transaction of paying for groceries, there used to be important human interaction. It may have taken a minute more, however, what was happening in our brains and subsequently in our contact with others during that minute is part of what may be missing now and why our development and ability to communicate as a society is changing.

Is humanity evolving or have we devolved? I would say that there are undeniable benefits from the evolution of technology, however, the question is, has there been a significant human cost? Has there been a deterioration in our ability to interconnect and moreover, to our developmental brain?

During my concussion recovery time, but for, the people in my life who were able to connect person to person, I became completely detached from society. For the most part, ceased was the ability to conduct personal or professional relationships, or any type of task that required interaction. I could only speak using my voice rather than a keyboard. Furthermore, the use of my voice could not be via dictation into a cell phone, thus, the listener would need to respond in the same manner for me to receive their message. The blatant realization of how difficult it was to achieve such interaction was quite astonishing and discouraging.

Is this how our brains are wired? To connect with others primarily through transmitting electronic signals? The answer in a word….no. Are the gestures that are only possible through physical or personal exchange important and needed? Yes.

I admit, there are times when it is more efficient and convenient to not need to interact further than simply pressing a few keys, however, what are the long-term results? Are we able to have the best of both worlds?

How many times have you required, or preferred to speak to a live person rather than a prerecorded or artificial intelligent voice, however, have been unsuccessful in doing so? Or, if you do speak with someone, are they quick, robotic and for lack of a better description, unpleasant or rude? Or have our standards of what is conceived as being without social graces and manners also changed?

As we continue to look at the song lyrics, we come to the lines, “Fools, said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows. Hear my words that I might teach you, take my arms that I might reach out to you”.

Would you agree that the old saying, ‘eyes are the window to the soul’ must have come from a place of wisdom? And as empathetic listeners, we as counsellors have people coming to us when their lives are in crisis. They’re willing to pay a fee, in hopes that they will leave feeling settled, relieved, heard, understood, empowered, enlightened, at peace. We will make natural, yet deliberate eye contact whilst our bodies are postured in thoughtful, careful, cautiously considerate positions. Why?

Why do we do this? How much of what we do is contrived or conscious verses naturally instinctual? Do we subconsciously know that if we don’t listen when we hear; if we don’t speak when we talk, then our clients will not feel connected to us, or themselves, enough to heal? And in the silence, their pain grows?

In society, do our current methods of communication help us or harm us?

Barring not having sight, in which case other senses are relied upon for the same results, making eye contact is the first and most primal conscious and subconscious requirement for connection. This followed by the other senses of sound, touch, smell, taste. Yet, our world now functions primarily by connecting via electronic devices. What we see is a LED light, what we hear is an electronic sound, what we touch is a device. Despite being so electronically connected, isolation grows when we no longer experience social cues that come from facial expressions, tone of voice, body movements aka body language.

As outlined in the German study, “Vestibular and Cerebellar Contribution to Gaze Optimality” led by Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, explained is the neuroscience behind brain function and how critical it is to communication and connection.

“One of the consequences of living in a sedentary Facebook society is that we don't flex the cerebellum enough and often miss out on eye-to-eye connections. The lack of movement in a three-dimensional space and human interactions causes the cerebellum to atrophy and impairs its function.” (Psychology Today Article, “The Neuroscience of Making Eye Contact” by Christopher Bergland).

“Talking without speaking” has also had a markable impact on our written language skills. Emojis are used rather than words and words have been broken down to a scrambling of letters and text vernacular that very often contains no personal salutations. It is not unusual to receive text messages, emails or even have person to person exchanges that do not include greetings or farewells.

Isolation grows when our natural reflexes and responses are no longer being utilized. I think we are losing touch (no pun intended) as a result of not employing vital skills that keep separation from growing, with consequential effects of being in “the wells of silence”. When we lose familiarity with social cues, we then so lose the ability to communicate as effectively.

“The development of sociolinguistic competence as well as the use of pragmatic and politeness strategies are particularly important. Interestingly, greetings and closings perform as important a social role in email as in other forms of interactions. As Eckert and McConnell?Ginet (2003) note in part: “Greetings and farewells offer formulas to ease the strain created, by the beginnings and ends of interactions”. The absence or presence of a greeting and the type of greeting set the tone for the email conversation that follows. The greeting is one means by which the writer constructs his or her social and professional identity and relationship with the addressee(s). A closing can help consolidate the relationship and establish a relational basis for future encounters.” (Joan Waldvogel, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Wiley On-Line Library).

When we do not first greet someone before anything else, lost is the opportunity for a complete connection. Lost is the chance to collect or be fully received.

Whenever I find myself losing touch with that which is natural, as opposed to normal, I look towards two sources. Babies and animals. I watch the instinctual actions of both. Eye contact, smelling, body movement, sounds, all the cues that come naturally and dictate that which with follow in terms of connection and success in relationships with others and environments.

“According to the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, family time has dropped dramatically by more than a third since the onset of the digital revolution despite staying relatively consistent for decades prior to this. The study involved more than 30 countries.

Parents and teachers also now compete with digital devices and a child’s peers in order to get their attention. Many of our children are increasingly more attached to their friends than to the adults who are responsible for them, which is only fueled by devices that enhance peer connectivity. It is also our caring for our children that unlocks their instincts to care about others. Tragically there are signs our children are losing their caring feelings at an alarming rate. Research on empathy in North American youth has found a 48% decline today in comparison to 30 years ago, as well as a 30% decline in their capacity to consider someone else’s perspective. Video games and digital devices cannot teach empathy nor activate instincts for contact, closeness, and caring in the same way that human connection can.” (from the Neufeld Institute and Dr. Deborah MacNamara’s address to the United Nations in New York for the Global Day of Parents, presented June 2016).

We, as counsellors, know that if we ask Google and Siri to sit in on our sessions taking notes and speaking in our place, then our clients will be looking elsewhere for help. As best-selling author, educator and speaker, Dr. Gordon Neufeld states, “If you do not feed your cat and your neighbour does, you will surely lose your cat to your neighbour.”

And to that end, I can’t help but wonder if Paul Simon’s line, “And no-one dare disturb the sound of silence” is a message that, in the context of both yesteryears and today’s world, is imploring society to remember that we humans are still our best device. That we can certainly benefit from the advantages of electronic communication when it is balanced and used in ways that facilities human development and relationships rather than hinder or harm it.

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