They Text, They Tweet, But Can They Communicate?

So I was out for coffee with a good friend of mine last week at a local Starbucks having a celebratory latte over my new book and in they walk. It was a group of girls who must have been about 15 years old. They sat down at a table opposite us after ordering their drinks. About 5 minutes later my friend nudges me and says, “Look”. As I turned toward the group I see 5 girls with their heads down looking at their phones and not talking to each other at all. “Wow!” was all I could say, although I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.

What is it about the current generation that keeps their heads buried in technology and ear buds permanently affixed to their ear lobes? Well for starters, they are Generation Z or the Net Generation and they have never known life without the latest smartphone. What’s more, they’ve never known life without the internet. I remember when the internet was first released to the public. I believe I was in first year university or maybe it was in grade 12. Never mind, I’m dating myself!

Other than being a source of amusement for those in older generations, the common site of young people attached to their electronic devices like they were oxygen tanks is a sign of deeper issues. I worry that young people are growing up with underdeveloped communication skills because they are spending most of their time trying to fit their ideas and feelings into the 140 character limit of a tweet.

I have seen the reality of this in my career as a camp director, especially during job interviews and staff communication on the job. Before a potential candidate even gets to my office to meet with me, I am seeing evidence of poor communication skills. From résumés being emailed without any kind of message, to not responding to confirm an interview time and showing up anyway, a large majority of young people are struggling to communicate well. Why? Because so much of their time is dedicated to communication that is not face-to-face that young people are growing up with less practice in interpreting body language and tone of voice, which is actually more important in understanding the message someone is communicating to us. It is not what is said, but how it is said.

So what’s the potential impact of this lack of communication skills on children, as they become young adults looking for jobs in the working world? They will struggle to compete. There is so much competition for jobs and as I spoke about in my last post, many young adults are moving back home after university unable to find employment. Personally, when I am weeding through hundreds of résumés each camp season maybe 15% of candidates get to the interview round. The reason…they have shown that they can communicate their experience and passion for the job in a way that outshines their peers. So what about the other 85% who never make it to the interview round? What does life have in store for them?

The shining light in this competitive reality is that communication skills can be taught and the arts are the perfect vehicle to learn this vital skill. Generally, across all arts disciplines there is an element of critique. A back and forth between the instructor and the participant whereby the work is critiqued based on the meaning that the product is attempting to express. Whether it is a dance piece, painting or improv scene, artists are consistently being asked, “What feeling or idea are you trying to communicate?” Through the process of critique the work is dissected to ensure that the meaning attempting to be communicated, actually is. This is usually done through asking in-depth questions to challenge the artist to think about how they are communicating their idea. Learning communication skills through the arts is a fantastic way to become more self-aware of how our own styles of communicating come across to others. This awareness is crucial when applying for a job in any field.

I firmly believe that good communication skills take practice, just like mastering any other skill. My hope is that parents and educators are doing what they can to counteract children’s incessant need to text and tweet. Beyond enrolling children in arts programming, parents and educators can do simple things like having family dinners without the phone so everyone can talk about their day or having lively debates in class about current events can give young people opportunities to practice communicating.

There is so much we can do to support the younger generations in gaining a competitive edge as they enter the working world. Please encourage young people to ‘unplug’ from their technology every once in a while, their future career success may depend on it!

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I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic so please join my new group on Linkedin (The Arts Leadership Education Network) so we can continue talking about these important issues.