Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The limits of unlimited communication

(A version of the article was carried by The Huffington Post)
I've been studying Arabic for almost two years now and have in that time rediscovered my love for pencils. The Arabic alphabet comprises a series of elegantly curved letters that are most attractively transmitted onto a sheet of paper when I use a freshly sharpened pencil. I find excitement and enjoyment when I endeavour to express thoughts on paper in Arabic, whether I’m writing a short story for an assignment or a short note to a friend or family member.
Perhaps because I exert more effort to find and compose the right words within the language, I sense that any note I write is infused with more heart than the language I use unconsciously. I’m always eager not to make grammatical errors, and yet even though I inevitably do, I’m satisfied with the beautiful cursive sentences I’ve scrolled onto the sheet of paper before me.

Making efforts to learn what is ultimately my mother tongue has caused me to reflect with both sadness and disappointment at how greatly my native English handwriting skills have deteriorated over the years. I predominately use computers and smart phones with predictive text to jot down any thought in English, so whenever I actually have to write something onto paper I’m appalled at how messy my handwriting has become. I type faster now in English than I’ll ever be able to write, a consequence of the fact that most of my daily correspondences are done using some form of technology.
Arabic homework, courtesy Flickr
Strictly speaking, technological advancements should improve our ability to communicate with each other. “Social-networking” tools such as Facebook or LinkedIn and instant message applications like WhatsApp, iMessage, BlackBerry Messenger and Skype are supposed to make communication easier and simpler. While they do in many instances – connecting people in different time zones and continents with virtually no effort at all – I sometimes sense interpersonal communication has deteriorated. The flavour of both oral and written communication, and our excitement and appreciation for it as a form of human connection, has dissolved into a series of screens, abbreviated words and buttons.

Messages and e-mails are rarely returned promptly, and when they are returned, the replies often lack equal courtesy. Phone calls are very often rushed and frosty. Even in person, we risk being aloof because our attention is periodically drawn away from the conversation to our iPhones, BlackBerrys, Androids and other animated "smart" devices.

The more we connect with the medium of communication, the less we connect with people on a personal level behind the screens or even across the table. In the workplace, I spend countless hours each day glued to a computer screen. While people may surround me, we rarely have a moment to pull our attention away from the multiple screens in front of us and engage in a conversation.

Blue screens of life, courtesy Flickr
Drawn together, these factors often overwhelm me with the sense of disconnection that results from being “connected”. Being someone who thrives on, and ultimately needs, thoughtful communication with those around me – be they family members, friends or colleagues – I find this trend troubling.

I tend to be very responsive and engaged in everything from Facebook status updates to long telephone conversations or deep, meaningful chats over tea. Generally speaking, I’ll respond quickly to e-mails, messages and phone calls, even when I am busy, except for the rare times that I simply forget. When that happens, the moment I remember I feel culpable and reply at the earliest convenience, beginning with profuse and honest apologies for the delay in responding.

Being thoughtful and prompt in communicating with others is, for me, a basic courtesy and, in the words of the Last Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, “humility and courtesy are acts of piety.”

Yet I often regard my innate desire to communicate effectively as a drawback in modern-day life because, in spite of the fact that we have so very many tools at our fingertips to keep in touch, our communication skills leave much to be desired. Rather than communicate more, I often try to restrain myself from conveying my thoughts and emotions as much as I would like.

The time I’ve spent lately with a pencil in hand and a sheet of paper has reminded me of the need to bring back more sincere, courteous communication into my life. At its core, communicating well is about good manners that we should all strive toward achieving. Our politeness and consideration when dealing with others are, after all, important ways of expressing faith.

“When you are greeted by anyone, respond with a better greeting, or at least return it,” advises the Holy Quran (4:86). “God takes account of all things.”

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