THE ISLAND SYNDROME
Part 1: Understanding the Island Syndrome
(August 12, 2010)
To expose the basic problem, let us consider one facet of communication. During the time in which human beings evolved (about 200,000 years), our ancestors lived in a world much different from our own. For most of this time life took place outdoors, and people interacted with one another in person. Indeed, until the beginning of the 20th century, there was very little communication at a distance.
To be sure, it was always possible to send someone to relay a spoken message or deliver a written note. By the late 1800s, it was also possible to use the postal service to deliver a letter or the telegraph service to send a telegram. Reaching a large number was even more difficult: one would have to write (and distribute) a book or pamphlet, or publish an article in a newspaper.
Thus, as late as the early twentieth century, it was still the case that, most of the time, if person wanted to communicate with another person, he or she had to be in that person's presence.
Today, we live indoors, in mostly artificial surroundings, with access to communication facilities that allow us to reach many others, at any time, no matter what the distance. What I would like to do is take a moment, consider what it is like to communicate in person, and compare that to your experience using a cell phone — or email, text messaging, instant messaging, Web pages, Internet discussion groups, and so on.
When we talk with someone in person, we notice a lot more than his words. We hear the nuances of his voice, such as the tone, the volume, and the rhythm. We also see his body language and his gestures. We might touch the other person and he might touch us. These non-verbal cues create a great deal of context that would otherwise be missing. When we email, text message, IM (instant message), or leave messages on a Web site, all we have are the words we see on our screen. When we talk on the telephone, we do hear a voice, but nothing more.
It is important to appreciate that when we talk with someone in person, much of the emotional content is non-verbal.
It is important to appreciate that when we talk with someone in person, much of the emotional content is non-verbal. Over the phone, most of this content is lost, which makes for a much less intense experience, especially when we are talking about emotionally charged issues. Moreover, when we talk on the phone, we can quietly let our attention slip from time to time without offending the other person. In fact, if we are careful, we can even do something else as we talk — for example, check our email or read a book — something we can't do in person. When we text message, instant message, or email, all of the non-verbal content is lost, which makes our conversations even less emotional and less demanding.
Many people prefer to talk over the phone — or text message, IM, or email — because it is often a lot easier and more convenient than talking in person. To see what I mean, take a moment to compare talking in person to talking over the phone. If you think about it, you will see that, over the phone, you relate differently, almost to the point of modifying your personality.
For instance, let's say you need to have an important discussion with your significant other (wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend). Think about having that conversation in person. Now imagine having the same conversation over the phone. Does it not seem different? In fact, is it not true that, in general, all your phone conversations with people you know are significantly different than your in-person conversations? (Take another moment to think about it.)
The fact is: only real, in-person conversations provide the type of high-quality communication we need to maintain good relationships. As human beings, we are social animals, with strong, atavistic needs to communicate with other human beings and to be part of a group — in person. Anything less leaves us powerfully dissatisfied on a deep, biological level. Today, the modus vivendi of many of us is to live indoors, eating poorly, stimulating ourselves poorly, thinking poorly, and communicating in ways that rarely satisfy our real needs.
In a general sense, there is nothing inherently wrong with living this way, per se. Indeed, it might work fine for, say, an intelligent computer or a robot. However, we are human beings and, as such, a life lacking in rich, satisfying, in-person communication along with adequate nurturing, denies us the environment and social interaction we need on a daily basis if we are to live well.
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