While staying at my parents recently, I made an intriguing discovery. Tucked away on a bookshelf in my old teenage bedroom, I found an old diary from 1992, written by my 16-year-old self.
I was both horrified and amused at this moody, hormonal blast from the past, who was foul to her parents, grappled with word processing lessons at school and lusted after Jean Claude Van Damme.
But the thing that really stood out to me was how much time I spent talking to my friends. For hours on end. My friends knew everything about me and I knew everything about them. I might have grunted incoherently at my parents and teachers, but I was in constant communication with my contemporaries.
These days, the majority of my conversations take place over Whatsapp. There are lots of great things about Whatsapp: it’s quick, convenient and perfect for our busy, time-pressured lives. When you’ve got 10 different group chats going on, complete with emojis, funny videos and the odd power mantra, who really needs to meet up in person?
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Teenage Jo lived to talk on the phone (my diary entries about arguments with my dad over eyewatering phone bills are proof of that).
Nearly three decades on, she would be utterly baffled at this self-imposed vow of silence her adult self has taken on. ‘What? You have 24/7 access to a phone and you hardly ever talk on it?’ I did download an app recently called Moments, which records how much time you spend on your phone.
I deleted it after a week, disconcerted at the fact I was spending three hours plus a day on there and while I was constantly connected to people by scrolling through Instagram, checking my Twitter feed and emailing, the only people I actually spoke to during that time were my mum, my sister and the receptionist at my doctor’s surgery.
In fact, when I stop to think about it, when did I last have a proper, good old-fashioned, put-the-worlds-to-right, bare-my-soul, cry-with-laughter chinwag with a mate?
As much as I try to convince myself that Whatsapp is the way forward, all this electronic communication has left me with an inner emotional emptiness and a feeling of slight paranoia that just won’t go away. No matter how many group chats I’m involved in.
How technology stops us from making real connections
“We’re in constant contact but is anyone really connecting?” asks health and confidence coach Rhona Clews. “With Whatsapp and instant messaging, it can feel like we have to always be available when sometimes, we’re actually not.
“A friend might get in touch and try to engage when we’re busy at work, or even hanging the washing out. In the gaps of non-verbal communication, there also presents a new range of situations for potential misunderstanding.
“If a friend doesn’t instantly reply and yet they’ve since posted something silly on Facebook, you know they’ve ‘seen’ your message, so why haven’t they responded? This can leave you feeling down-the- priority list or underappreciated, whereas a short phone call would sort all that stuff out.”
I do feel us women, especially, are doing ourselves a disservice. We like talking. It reassures us, makes us feel better about ourselves and reminds us that we are part of a wider community, our own tribe. As a teenager, I remember feeling so satiated after a really good conversation with a friend.
Nowadays we mainly exist on bite-sized, information-based messages, where cartoon faces take the place of words and emotions. I feel like I’m starving myself on a fundamental level.
“We’ve put ourselves on a conversational diet when, at a time more than ever in an uncertain world, we should be gorging on connecting. “There is also a danger of losing empathy when we communicate electronically,” says Rhona.
“We miss out on the verbal and facial cues, the subtle nuances of life. When you feel pressured to instantly re back a response, things easily lose their depth. You can also miss out on seeing how somebody actually is in the flesh, rather than how they portray themselves online.
“It’s reassuring to meet with someone face to face and see they have the human flaws and existential worries that we all have.”
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Why face-to-face contact is good for our health
Human contact is not only good for the emotions – it’s good for your health. When we hug people or have positive close interaction, a feel-good hormone called oxytocin is released (also known as the ‘love hormone’). Research has shown that oxytocin can help reduce anxiety and stress, reduce blood pressure and even help to protect against heart disease.
“Oxytocin is released in physical presence and touch,” Rhona says. “There really is no substitute for having a hug.”
Conversation is the one unique thing that us human beings have been blessed with. It connects us, makes us laugh, makes us cry. It informs and inspires us. Conversation is sexy and invigorating. It sharpens our minds and nourishes our souls. It quite literally heals our hearts. It makes us better listeners, not only to others but to ourselves.
So next time you’re about to Whatsapp someone close to you a 😘 or a 😢 why not pick up the phone and call them instead? Or even better, meet up with them with your real face?
“The risk with using the same platforms to communicate for work as our personal lives, is that it can lead to a loss of warmth and intimacy,” says Rhona. “We can easily come across as business-like or cool when we are just trying to be efficient!”
Clarity can help here. “Be clear about when is best for your family to use their phones and iPads and when it’s face-to-face time. Set your own boundaries: turn off alerts, don’t reply to emails after 8pm and if you’re watching a film as a family, leave your phone in the other room.
“Even if we are physically with people, we can still be on our phone. Some say that all you can really give someone is your time and presence – even if you’re sat there in awkward silence!”