An Opinion About Communicating
“Don’t Look Back: That’s Not Where You’re Going”
I recently read this quote somewhere and thought to myself, “This HAD to have originated from someone under 30,” and, sure enough, Google told me that it’s from a current song by a current young artist I’ve never heard of—Inga Copeland. When I was that age, the world I lived in was still very similar to the world I grew up in. But, I’ve now reached an age where nostalgia is part of my psyche because the world I currently live in is vastly different from the world of the 1950s. The world of my youth will never return again. It’s gone forever. This causes me to occasionally reflect on the things that are so commonplace today that we take for granted, but only 50 or 60 years ago were something very special indeed. With that in mind, I’m going to tell you a story about COMMUNICATION.
It begins in 1964…
At my grade school, when students reached the fourth grade, they learned the proper way to write a letter, fold the paper, and address the envelope. To make this task a fun experience with broader scope (that is, not only learning to write letters, but also learning about geography and world cultures), each child was told she could choose a “pen pal” from a school in another country. I came home from school and went straight to the globe in Dad’s study. I put my finger on the spot where I lived and imagined a stick going straight through the globe’s center to the farthest-away spot on the opposite side. I wanted to have a pen pal from the other side of the world, with a culture vastly different from mine. It looked like India would be the place.
Soon, I received my assigned pen pal. I’ll call her “Su” and she was from New Delhi. She and I began our correspondence by sharing our customs, holidays, what our daily life was like, etc.— but it didn’t take long before Su and I really hit it off on a deeper level. We were kindred spirits. I couldn’t wait to get a letter from her. During summer vacation, if I saw the mail truck coming down our street, I’d wait at the curb for the mailman to hand me the stack of letters. I was so excited on those days when I’d see the airmail stripes peeking out of the stack of mail—a letter from Su! I’d tear it open and read it immediately. Usually, it would take me about a week to write a long reply. Mom always made sure I had a supply of “those really expensive stamps” (45¢!) on hand and off my letter would go to India. It took 10 days to reach Su. She’d anticipate my letters with equal excitement and write back to me. In this way, our correspondence flourished at a frequency of every 5 to 6 weeks. (It could go no faster.) Our friendship flourished as well.
A special birthday gift
One summer, my parents decided to give me a very special birthday gift—a phone call to Su! This had to be carefully arranged via letters, to coordinate a day and account for the 12-hour time difference. It was more exciting than Christmas! On the big day, we finally convinced the phone operator that we were placing a call to INDIA, not INDIANA. I could hardly stand it, waiting for the call to be patched through to India. A tiny, faint voice was barely audible, but “Helloooo?” and I heard Su’s voice for the first time! We were only able to talk for 10 minutes because of the cost—$25, which was a LOT of money in the 1960s. But how special it was to make this brief, human connection with my dear friend.
Su and I have been in constant communication with each other for 50 years now. We grew up together, sharing our lives through school, careers, loves, marriage, births, divorce, deaths, cancer, EVERYTHING. We have met in person twice here in the United States. Our method of communication has changed over the years from letters to cassette tapes to emails. (No, I haven’t embraced smartphones, texting, Facebook, or videos.) I could communicate with Su every day now through email or crazy-generous free long distance, but I don’t. Life gets in the way and, because communication is so easy, I tend to take it for granted. But, I still feel the same excitement when I see Su’s name in my email inbox.
What’s the point?
And now this story comes full circle. It’s not a bad thing to “look back” in spite of what Inga Copeland sings. Looking back is what helps me realize what a very special, precious thing human communication is, in both our personal lives and our work lives, whether it’s dealing with co-workers across the room or clients across the world. Is there any harm in walking down the hall to someone’s office to discuss a project face-to-face versus using electronic media? Is there any harm in phoning or Skyping an international client for a follow-up conversation to hear each other’s voices and connect on a more personal level?
Is direct human communication now considered passé?
Communication can become a lost art if we only post information and make announcements via electronic media, rather than encourage live conversation that encompasses feedback, give-and-take, good manners and decorum. I don’t mean the obligatory typed message, “Call me if you have questions”…I mean the kind of interaction that includes a meaningful information exchange, a laugh, or perhaps a welcomed pat on the back.
The message of my long-winded missive is actually quite simple: Communication can still be (and should be) a very special experience in today’s “instant-messaging” world.
I think I’ll go email Su now…