As a regular user of public transport it’s hard these days not to notice that I’m surrounded most mornings by a silent sea of bowed heads. Everyone is completely engrossed in their smartphone, tablet, or laptop (with a handful opting for a real-life book or newspaper) - fixated on their phones in a zombie-like trance, paying little attention to the world outside.
I have to admit, most mornings I'm no different to my fellow commuters, and not being able to connect to the on-board Wi-Fi frustrates me as much as the next phone-obsessive. However, the silence of the packed train carriage got me thinking - while we don’t appear to speak as much anymore, we’re ‘talking’ more than ever. Text messaging, Whatsapping, Tweeting, Instagramming, Snapchatting, Facebooking, the list goes on. We’re in constant communication with one another and have never 'talked' so much....but what place does the humble conversation have in modern communication?
From a business perspective, consumers are spending more and more of their time online, so it makes sense that companies have an active presence on the same channels. Being able to tweet a company saves time when you want to ask a quick question or make a complaint without having to spend time on hold. Banks and supermarkets are responding to technology by offering self-service systems and checkouts, and often the queue for these is longer than the queue for the human teller. However, when it comes to bigger, more complex, issues, it seems we still acknowledge that 140 characters has its limitations and would much rather engage directly or speak to someone in person. For now...
So the question is: have smartphones killed the conversation? They've most definitely augmented it. However, as with all other areas of our modern lives, the key is to find a way to get a balance between humans and machines. Online communication opens up our world to friends and colleagues that otherwise we'd lose touch with, as well as making it easier to stay in touch with those we know from our every-day relationships. Social media is just a different way to interact, but it doesn't replace traditional means. You can't put a filter on a conversation to make it glossier, while emojis are no substitute for the myriad of gestures, expressions, and lilts of voice that pepper a chat with another human being. Similarly, the buzzing of a notification on your phone is nothing compared to the buzz you get from a good conversation.
That being said, right now, snapchats and text messages are increasingly the conversation. This is the new dialogue, and more than that, this is the future dialogue. The companies that will do it best are the ones that offer options for customers based on how they want to communicate at any given time. The challenge for businesses and individuals alike is to find a balance between online and offline, and find the right blend between the power of technology and the power of the conversation.