I have a lot of time for the financial journalist Anthony Hilton, but on the odd occasion that he strays from economics to anthropology, I occasionally pick small bones of contention with him.
As a makeshift finance journalist myself between 2011 and 2014, I have to appreciate someone who makes global economics as easily digestible as Hilton does.
He’s been involved with the Evening Standard for as long as I’ve been alive. His column is usually informed by recent speeches or publications and it’s always delivered with great clarity. It’s the measure of someone who knows their subject particularly well.
Hilton’s column this week is slightly different. He pinpoints a study by Deloitte which suggests that one in five of us no longer use our mobile phones to talk to people. This is double the number since 2012, and a worrying trend, he argues.
We are fast becoming an insular generation that is more reliant on apps than people for guidance, and more prone to texting than talking. Technology is encouraging us to be more private, and at the same time, more outspoken.
It’s difficult not to sense the underlying concerns. I recall a short train journey last week from Stratford to Liverpool Street where ten of the dozen people I was facing were all sat with eyes down, glued to their phones. It’s like a zombie nation.
Hilton provides a tidy anecdote about one of his past interviews to suggest that something vitally important is lost by this migration away from talking.
The ability to read body language, he says, is “honed by a lifetime of talking to people, looking closely at them, listening to what they emphasise, looking at them in the eye and observing how they actually behave. It is not learned by sending texts.”
He continues: “To communicate by text or email is to enter a world of urgency and often one of anger, of question and answer. The format is simply not geared for patience, tolerance, sensitivity or the understanding of nuance which is part and parcel of a face-to-face conversation, even one that addresses the same topic.”
I think the basis of his argument is sound. Good interpersonal skills should involve the ability to communicate by voice. And there are considerable benefits to be derived from the ability to read body language, not least that we in turn become more comfortable with our own.
But I think there are some over-generalisations here – notably that writing lacks patience, sensitivity, or any understanding of nuance. That completely depends who’s doing the writing.
It dawned on me last year how important written communication had become to doing my job well.
Though I may already be a victim of Hilton’s malaise, I know I can write far better than I speak. Those who rely on writing are often playing to their strengths – and it’s because they can choose their words or judge their tone far better than they trust their ability to do so in person.
I think a lot of the important connections I have in my life are maintained by writing. But that’s because writing has played a large part in forming them.
This site, for instance, sometimes intrigues, occasionally endears, and often dissuades. That’s a fair extension of what I do in person, I would reasonably wager.
I don’t write because I dislike talking. I relish the chance to see people, and I think the best ingredient of a good relationship is finding (or making) time for them. Nor do I write because I care little for the sensitivity and nuance of spoken discourse that we’re accused of neglecting.
On the contrary – I write because I do care about these things, and I find that time, patience, and a good dose of pride and care are precisely the ingredients that allow us to communicate well.
That’s what we should care about, at the end of the day. What’s done is done, as far as technology may or may not be influencing our behaviour.
And yes, I sometimes find the intrusion of technology to be a little anti-social. But I don’t believe everyone has abandoned their principles, and I’d like to think the migration of speech to text won’t necessarily make us a poorer generation.
There is a part of me that wants people to encounter my writing first before they have to deal with me. I’m not sure I’m represented at my best in person – but that’s down to far more than just technology.