Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Last week I had a freak bike accident. I was madly peddling away when suddenly my bike fell to the ground and I banged my left shoulder—dislocating two ribs. Now, what made this particular bike accident a freak bike accident was the fact that the whole incident took place with my stationary bike. I know, you’re thinking, “How could anybody crash a stationary bike?” It turns out it’s actually quite easy. My left shoelace was untied and it eventually got all wrapped up in the left peddle. When I tried to get off the bike my left foot was trapped so close to the base of the heavy bike that my highly unbalanced weight then pulled the whole contraption down on top of me.
As I lay alone in my basement exercise room trapped under a surprisingly heavy piece of equipment, I shouted words that have become familiar to all of us: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Sure enough, my wife was taking a shower at the time. Anyway, as I lay there writhing in pain my thoughts turned to advice I had been given as a boy. Never swim alone. Who would have thought that this would apply to a stationary bike?
Eventually I was able to crawl out from underneath the treacherous exercise equipment—but not until I had given the image of dying alone a fair amount of thought. I mulled over this rather macabre topic because (1) I was trapped and had nothing else to do, and (2) recently I’ve been reading a lot about people who lead solitary lives and who are possibly going to die alone. These people I’ve been reading about must lead solitary lives—because they spend most of their waking hours and virtually all of their free time tethered to a computer where they wander around in cyberspace in a place called “Second Life.”
I had been aware that people can spend far too much time playing video games, but this cyber addiction was something completely new to me. In “Second Life” and similar sites, people log into simulated communities where they create a pixilated image of themselves (usually looking like Brad Pitt or Katie Holmes). Then their electronic persona meanders around countless landscapes and conducts simulated conversations with other pixilated friends. People build homes, operate businesses, read “news” about the cyber community, and even spend real money to buy fake dollars which they use to purchase such things as brand name sports clothes. Only they don’t get to wear the actual clothing. The nifty new outfit doesn’t arrive via FEDEX after which they put it on and use it in a vigorous game of tennis. Their character, or “avatar,” gets to wear the clothing. That’s right; these other-world aficionados actually buy clothing for their avatar.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like playing games as much as the next person. My only problem with this is that I have pictured in my mind a person who sits in his or her parents’ wood-paneled basement, mouse-clicking his or her way around a simulated world and rarely coming up for air. This scares me. It scares me because a rapidly growing number of people are finding new, creative, and often expensive ways to be uncoupled from their social world. First came Chinese food delivered to your door. You didn’t have to leave home any more. Then it was the video game. It was fun staying home. Next came text messaging. Okay, you talked, but not really. Now people can live their whole lives online in a Second Life, free from the complexities of actual face-to-face human interaction.
“Why care?” you ask. Because if humans don’t routinely meet, talk, and otherwise interact with members of their own species, their social skills take a dive and so does society as a whole. It’s hard to run a country where people break into a sweat when they think about something as simple as disagreeing with a friend or asking someone on a date. And believe me, as more and more people spend less and less time in normal human interaction, the fear of holding normal conversations only escalates.
As proof of this, college students are now offered lessons on how to talk with people and eventually do something as risky as ask another person on a date. They hold these classes because many of the students don’t lay claim to even the most basic of social skills. Why? Because they spend far more time in their version of the second life than they do in the first life. They write code, study alone, surf the net, study alone, write more code, and so forth.
These same students will graduate one day and take jobs. While working in these jobs they will need to be able to present their views, disagree, offer suggestions, and yes, even go toe-to-toe with an authority figure. They’ll need to do all this and more if they expect their ideas to be heard. And guess what—they desperately need to be heard. No society can afford to invest hundreds of millions of dollars educating the best and brightest of its citizens only to have their ideas remain unspoken because talking to others frightens them. And if you spend whole portions of your life on a computer, talking becomes frightening. Confronting feels downright impossible.
Do you need more evidence of a decaying social ability? There is a growing industry out there that focuses on helping people split up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. These new “breakup services” do the dirty work for you. Some announce the split on a TV show; another entrepreneur will drop your significant other with a phone call. For those interested in a softer touch you can hire DumpMonkey and you’re soon-to-be-ex will receive a 16-inch stuffed monkey along with a certificate that announces the end of the relationship. How cute . . . not.
Neil Sedaka was right; breaking up is hard to do. Nevertheless, turning the job over to someone else is just short of despicable. It’s bad enough getting dropped by a potential life mate, but learning about it from a third party merely adds insult to injury. And once again, why is this industry growing in the first place? Because people don’t want to hold an awkward conversation. With folks who are intimidated by normal discussion topics, the thought of breaking up is more than they can bear. So to ease their own pain, they double their partner’s pain.
Of course, gamers, cyberspace geeks, and frightened lovers aren’t the only ones at risk here. Every child of today’s highly-programmed, fast-paced generation may receive less experience in routine socializing than his or her own parents did. As soccer moms shuttle today’s kids from one lesson to the next, you have to wonder what’s happening to their interpersonal skills. Time that used to be spent playing with friends is now spent receiving instruction or practicing music, dance, and sports techniques. Consequently, many don’t spend near as much time hanging out with their peers, playing games, telling stories, negotiating deals, and otherwise informally interacting as did their own parents. Their tennis backhand may be improving, but their ability to work through differences with a colleague can’t be. Combine this explosion of programmed learning with programmed computer games and TV programs in general and you’re left postulating that human interactions skills may be on the decline.
So, what’s a person to do? First, to borrow from the tennis vernacular, don’t run around your backhand. As you stare into the face of a potentially difficult or awkward conversation, don’t avoid it. Prepare for it. Make the art of conversation a subject you study and improve—not one you avoid.
Second, increase the number of conversations you have on a daily basis. For some of you, that means you’ll need to climb out of the basement and go out to a coffee shop. Set aside your avatar and chat up real people. For others, it means stepping away from your computer screen at work and walking around the place for say five minutes twice a day where you can chat informally with your coworkers. At home, let the media work for you. As you watch TV with your friends or loved ones, talk about what’s going on. I, for example, learned long ago that my own children preferred to go to the drive-in movie with me over going to a regular movie because a car afforded the privacy to talk, shout, make fun of, critique, and otherwise use the movie as a springboard for conversation.
Third, as parents, spend as much time grooming your children’s social skills as you spend on improving their ability to play a minuet on the piano or successfully complete a triple Lutz at the ice rink. Spend time with them laughing, pretending, telling stories, and simply chewing the fat. Play games that afford time to giggle and discuss whatever silly subject comes to mind. Demonstrate how to tease, negotiate, and win and lose gracefully. Finally, drop some of the programmed learning that’s bound to make your kids too uptight in the first place and allow your children to play informally with children their own age. Encourage them to play board games where they talk and negotiate and kid around.
Who knows, if you play your cards right, one day your kids will be able to ask someone out on a date without breaking out in hives and they won’t feel the need to hang out in your basement where they skulk around in a cyber world. Best of all, when the stakes are high at work or in their personal relationships, they’ll be able to express their opinions in a way that is at once effective and sensitive. Won’t that be nice?