You know, you meet the most amazing people in the strangest of places. I was out shopping the other day, when I took advantage of a strategically placed couch to take the weight off my feet.

Sitting just across from me was a lady who would have been a perfect advert for grandmothers and lavender. She smiled and nodded, and then leaned forward and said “I am so cross!”

I blinked a bit, such words coming from a text book grandmother seemed unusual to say the least – but seeing that she wanted to talk I encouraged her to continue.

She had just been to the bank and had spent nearly thirty minutes queuing up to get served. I murmured sympathetically, “It’s a problem, I know”

But my dear,” she continued “there were six empty counters and only two people working – It appears that real people are not important anymore; we are forced to use ATM’s and only last week my neighbour had her purse snatched right out of her hand. She’s eighty, you know and not a spry as she used to be.”

As the gentle words of complaint continued, I looked across into the bank under discussion. She was right, there were just two people manning the counters and about twenty people lined up, patiently waiting. It struck me that most of them were elderly.

I brought my attention back to my companion as she gathered her things together, “Ah well,” she said “I must get home, I’m trying to get used to these emails and I am expecting one from my son – he never rings these days, just sends emails.” She sighed, and then nodded as she wended her way through the crowded shopping centre.

I felt saddened as I watched her go; with all the noise and bustle going on around her, she seemed an island of solitude, wrapped in silence.

I got home, still feeling somewhat upset by this encounter, to find an IM from my son awaiting me in my inbox – and in a flash of anger I sent one back tersely saying ‘Ring Me.’

In a huff, I poured out the whole story to the husband. After I had got to my triumphant conclusion he said “Why didn’t you ring him then!” I was instantly deflated – of course; why didn’t I? – I had fallen into the same trap that I was accusing my son of – failing to make the communication personal.

In the 1990’s Bill Gates of Microsoft fame had this to say about email – “Email is a unique communication vehicle for a lot of reasons. However email is not a substitute for direct interaction.” And yet we hear tales of staff members sitting almost next to each other but still sending each other email messages. Why not get off the chair and go and talk !

My grandmotherly acquaintance is right; the banks do encourage us to use internet banking, withdraw our money by ATMs. We have our salary or pension paid directly into our bank account, we use efpos or credit cards to pay for shopping, and I doubt if many of us have actually seen real money for quite some time.

In some shops you don’t even have to talk to any staff member now – you just go and get what you want off the shelves ; go to the self-service check out and pay by card. How long before supermarkets forget about their customers. We’ll soon be merely inconveniences to get around while filling shelves. In fact in some shops I think we already are!!

Some bank customers think they already have become depersonalised. And I suppose if you rarely come face to face with your customers they become unimportant; unreal; merely another set of statistics. And it is not just the banks; government department too seem to have retreated from direct contact, preferring the more impersonal method of data transfer rather than personal communication.

In his book Why Don’t People Listen? *Hugh Mackay says that the medium of the communication has a great impact on the way in which people perceive its importance.

In companies and organisations today there is more and more reliance on the transfer of information by electronic means. Managers and executive send out emails, company newsletters, notices and announcements and confidently think that they are engaged in communication.

Yet their employees declare that they are not being told what is going on – why the difference? The difference is the medium that was chosen. The employees complain that there is far too much information and very little communication.

When Trischel conduct our personal communication workshops we stress that it is people that inspire, motivate and connect – not equipment. Communication is a sharing of ideas and information between people, face to face. It is the whole deal, the facial expression; the tone of voice as well as the attitude which is immediately available.

Electronic methods depersonalise the message and merely give the illusion that communication has taken place – but we still continue to embrace these impersonal methods – such as the many social networking sites – and actually believe we are engaged in communication. Truth is – we are not really.

And then I thought about my chance acquaintance – sometime in the future she may never need to leave her house, she will get her shopping done on line, her banking done on line, maybe she will book a conference call with her doctor so he can diagnose her condition without ever needing to see her. Her connection with the outside world will be through an electronic portal only.

What then will be left for her – nothing but a world bereft of personal contact – nothing but the sound of silence.

I doesn’t bear thinking about.

Michele @ Trischel

*Hugh Mackay, Why Don’t People Listen, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney 1994

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