Musings from the Pound: Is technology ruining our relationships?

Aaron Baker
Writer from  Dallas, TX
| Published: September 14, 2009

When I think about technology in today's world, I'm often reminded of the once-popular taunt "talk to the hand, 'cause the ear don't wanna listen."  Looking back, as humorous as it was, it seems to depict the state of our society today.  The fact is, we literally do use our hands to "talk," because the ear really doesn't want to listen.  Foolish phrases aside, I've often wondered how technology has played a role in our everyday lives, and to what extent it will in the future.  At times, writing requires you to dive into your own experiences for the purpose of making a point.  Admittedly, I'm not a fan of sharing tidbits of my personal life, but for the purpose of this piece, I find it crucial to do so.

To keep an incredibly long story short, quite some time I ago, I met a unique individual through a job I was working on at the time.  Noticing that we had similar interests, we became good friends - or so I thought.  Thanks to technology, we stayed connected on a fairly regular basis.  What I wasn't aware of was that this person had established feelings for me that were beyond the standards of friendship, and she opted to write a long letter, detailing said personal feelings for me.  Over the course of time, I made it repeatedly clear in numerous ways that I had absolutely no interest in a relationship, and each time I meticuously explained this, I ended it with how much I appreciated our friendship.  Each time, she freely chose to remain friends with me.

I'll pause the story briefly to say that I believe there's a tremendous misconecption in the world that friendship with another individual entitles you to an all-access pass to their lives.  People fail to realize that, despite their relationships with people, there are still parts of their lives that they choose to keep private.  They'll tell you if and when they're ready; not the other way around.  Back to the story, this individual chose to sleuth around my personal life, and found connections with others that she didn't like.  She decided she would be unable to continue, and we parted ways.

As I hashed out the story with a female family member of mine a few weeks later over coffee, she made a point that stuck with me.  As she soaked the story in, she shook her head and said "you know, it's a shame that we can't just have friends anymore.  There's always the expectation for something else...always a hidden agenda."  As I sat and pondered what was just said, my mind naturally floated to the realm of technology, and then to the topic of communication.  Finishing the last sip of my coffee, a thought rushed through my mind: Is it possible that relationships of all kinds have been been inadvertently ruined by today's use of technology in everything that we do?

Now, if you've had a similar circumstance happen to you before, take the above example, and transcribe it into any other example in life to understand the fallacy in the argument.  Let's pretend that I begin a new job with a company with the hopes of becoming the CEO.  I repeatedly make it known to the organization that I have a huge interest in the position (all while hiding the fact that the only reason I accepted the position in the first place was in the hope of getting said CEO job).  Each time I ask, the company says "we're not interested in having you in the position.  We love having you in our organization, however."  Each time, I accept the answer, but continue to push my agenda.  As time goes on, I attend every social event that the company offers, schmooze with every executive, and suddenly get upset and quit when the company breezes by me and hires a new CEO.  Now, when 99 percent of people listen to my post-employment sob story, I imagine the conversation to be something along the lines of "well Aaron, you were told all along that you weren't getting the position, but each and every time, you accepted that decision and freely chose to stay with the company in your role.  The company made it clear to you on several occasions; how is it their fault?"  From my standpoint, this "blinded" mentality that seems to be prevalent in our society today can be directly blamed on technology.

First, there is no established etiquette for social media and virtual communicaton.  As such, a social expectation has emerged expecting individuals to be connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  If I leave my phone for more than a few hours, several of my friends and family will often send messages such as "where are you?" or "why aren't you returning my messages?"  Or my personal favorite, "why are you mad at me?"  Pardon me, but when did not responding construe a sense of anger?  I could be doing one of a million different things!  Let's be honest, we all have lives and are busy.  What happened in the 70's and 80's when people had to...heaven forbid...see each other in person?

To illustrate my point, I often use the example of someone coming to your door at 12 AM to say hello.  They bang on your door repeatedly for several minutes, until you groggily open the door and welcome them with a "what do you want?" (or perhaps a profanity-laced version, if you're a sleep lover like me).  They respond with "well, why weren't you answering me?"  Much like calling someone after 9 or 10 PM, this action would be considered especially rude, and many would skip the laborious task of getting out of bed in favor of calling the police, with the assumption that some sort of prank was being committed.  I view repeated calling and text messaging in the exact same category, yet thanks to the fact that society has no formal level of etiquette when it comes to virtual communication, it often goes unchecked. 

This expectation of always being available at your phone and/or computer has somehow permeated all levels of our personal and professional lives.  Because of this, we've become accustomed to an "information overload" way of life.  Within 30 seconds, I can power on my iPhone (or whatever I'm using that day), and browse information on three of the most popular social media networks: Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.  Utilizing the spy-like mentality that seems to have permeated our culture as of late, I can instantly see the picture of the girl engaging in a passionate hug with another man, and without giving her the chance to explain that she was hugging her cousin for the first time in years, become upset and cease all communications.

Secondly, there is some level of herocism we magically obtain when we're behind a phone or computer screen.  Realistically speaking, it's quite easy to say things when we're protected, thus diminishing our in-person relationships.  We see this every day in YouTube comments, Twitter posts, and the like.  As an unofficial test, I spoke with 10 ladies over the course of the week, and asked them two simple questions.  "Have you ever had a time where someone you don't know very well has sent you an inappropriate text message regarding your body, image, or the like?  Nine of the ten said they had.  I followed up with "and how many of you have heard similar comments in person?"  One said she had.  How things change when you're face to face.

None of this is intended to imply that social networking needs to be eliminated altogether.  Though there are negatives like what I've detailed above, good has also come from the introduction of the social networking medium.  This is where I ask you: what needs to be done?  Or better yet, can anything be done, or is it too late?  Is it possible to create a social networking etiquette, or will it naturally fall into place as the technology evolves and changes?  With discussion, I'm sure we can find a way to bridge the divide and make social networking as great as it can be.

(Image courtesy of Gothamist)