Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Change in the Way Folks Communicate

I grew up in an era of face to face communication.  On Sunday afternoons we would pile into the car and Dad would lead us on a drive somewhere but that somewhere always seemed to end up at one of our relative's homes where we would sit and talk and eat and laugh until the sun had long since set in the West.  In addition, my parents had many folks in their home.  I recall my Mom cooking for 40 people in a sit down dinner spread across the dining room, kitchen, and living rooms (with kids sitting on the stairs holding a tray on our laps for the plates and flatware).  It was a very social time and social meant face to face contact.  Our Pastor communicated to us in personal visits and conversation, too.

I have been a Pastor for more than 30 years and the times they are a changin.  People communicate differently and the face to face visits and conversations of old have given way to email, voicemail, phone, and social networking media.  I must admit that I have some concerns about this but the only folks who are interested in having me visit in their homes for conversation are those my age or older.  Everyone else is content to use email, voicemail, facebook, or phone.  If they really want to see me, they will set up at appointment -- either in my office or for breakfast or lunch.

My concerns have to do with the ease at which email, social media, and even phone conversations can turn to something different than these conversations would if you were staring someone in the eye.  I have tried to refrain from hitting the reply button so easily when folks email me with anger or complaint about something because I found my emailed responses tended to be defensive and abrupt even when I did not want to be.  I do not like the way privacy is turned public on the social networking media -- and I am not just speaking about pictures here.  People today say things, confess things, and express their feelings about things rather openly even about private subjects.  It could be my age or my experience but I am not so sure that opening up your live on facebook is wise or salutary -- especially when you do not know who is listening.  I am also concerned about the widespread use of voicemail to dump on folks our opinions and our anger when we find the phone leads us to a dead end.  I have been the victim of many of these voicemails and admit that I have also been the perpetrator of a couple of them.  The illusion of anonymity offered by speaking into a machine's memory instead of the ear of the hearer is not a helpful thing to effective and honest communication.

All of this combines to create a circumstance in which we find it easier to communicate indirectly rather than to speak forthrightly and openly.  I know this is true in my own congregation where too many conversations take place in the parking lot or whispered voices over coffee that should take place openly in meetings.  I know that email and facebook can turn someone isolated or incidental things into big issues as the trail of knowledge expands out of control, like a word tree in which new leaves of opinion appear in an exponential way.  I know that as a Pastor I spend a great deal of my day on the phone trying to reach people who use their answering machines, voicemail, or caller ID as a screening mechanism to avoid talking to me.  I know that as a Pastor I spend a great deal of my time repeating conversations or repeating information that could be said once if we had an actual meeting.  I know that while I was away I had hundreds of emails that accumulated (not including the spam), many text and voicemail messages, and many cell phone conversations even though I was on "vacation" a thousand miles away.

All of this combines to make it hard for us to know how to speak face to face, how to speak without the unbridled freedom of the illusion of anonymity that electronic, phone, and social media offer to us.  Why is it easier for us to comment on a wall than to speak what we think or feel at an open meeting?  One of the by-products of this change is the difficulty in bring reconciliation between wounded or angry parties.  If I see this in my parish, how much more true is it on the national scene or the Synodical level?

I know that it is not going to change... these times are changed as well as changing and there is no way to go back... but we must learn more effective and salutary use of these media forms or else the level of our public conversation will only further alienate, divide, and isolate us....  And this is a big concern for a Church where unity and community are key and essential values...


Rev. Eric J Brown said...


(the above was satire, in case anyone missed it)

Sue said...

Rev. Brown: so appropriate that you SHOUTED and didn't use spellchek.

Pastor Peters: exactly! I try to be very careful about all the things you mentioned. I use email if I have a question for the Pastor that is not urgent, and when I'm afraid I'll take up too much of his time in person (often a theological question - but sometimes an idea I have that I want him to ponder). I try not to complain unless I have a solution. I also feel that if you complain about something, you just volunteered to be part of the solution, but I know most people don't think like that. I don't know what the answer is, but I'm afraid it's going to get worse.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

The best way for anyone/everyone to understand social media is to get in there and start using it.

Facebook is a phenomenal opportunity.

Jump on in, the water is fine.