One morning last week, I phoned my neighbour from the apartment parking lot and told him in my broken Korean that he had left the light on inside his car. Even though I had obviously woken him up, he politely thanked me for the call and, a couple of hours later, sent me a text message in broken English, expressing his gratitude.
The very next day, I arrived home after a busy day at work and found a card waiting for me in my mailbox, its bright yellow envelope inscribed with my name and address in familiar blue script. I quickly tore the envelope open and read the handwritten note from my dear friend in Canada, who briefly yet sweetly told me she missed me and looked forward to seeing me again. There was no special occasion for sending me the card—she just wanted to say hello. I was so delighted and touched by her thoughtfulness that I laughed out loud and was nearly brought to tears.
These two back-to-back events reinforced to me how even the simplest personal gestures—a friendly text message, a handwritten note, a timely smile, listening without speaking, a pat on the back, or just the right amount of eye contact—can make us feel truly special. I’m sure both my neighbour and friend enjoyed bringing a smile to my face, and felt their time and effort was well worth the investment. At the same time, their kindly deeds not only encouraged me to believe that I was a person worthy of their respect and attention, but instantly enhanced my opinion of their character—a perfect win-win situation!
Unfortunately, those two pleasant experiences run contrary to what I view today as a steady decline in personal communication. Many people these days would rather send a series of text messages or tweets rather than talk to someone on the phone, and they’d rather post heaps of information and photos to the world at large on their Facebook page than send a personal e-mail to a specific individual. Saddest of all, when they meet others face-to-face, they seem to prefer the company of their portable technology—smartphones in particular—to the company of the people sitting with them at the same table. The unspoken message these technoholics are projecting, though unintentional, is nevertheless loud and clear: “you’re not important to me.”
If it feels so good to both give and receive the personal touch, then why are so many people moving away from it? My guess is that they have either forgotten how to do it, they are too busy, they have too short an attention span (“Just the bottom line, please.”), they are too lazy, or they have simply never learned how to communicate effectively. It would be easy to blame smart phones, the Internet, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking tools, but as with all technology, it’s not the tools themselves that are at fault; it’s the management of those tools which causes the problem. Once people start to replace—rather than supplement—detailed personalized communication with all-too-brief or overly generalized communication, then they start to lose the personal touch.
Some of you may argue that the depersonalized approach is perfectly acceptable, as long as everyone you communicate with is in agreement. If, however, the quality of your relationships is more important than the quantity of your relationships, then I highly recommend the personal touch. Don’t you want to feel special?
* Professor Greg Skwarok has worked in the English Program Office at Ewha Womans University since 2006. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from University of British Columbia and earned the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) diploma from Vancouver Community College.