One day while in the checkout line at the grocery store, the gentleman behind me saw that I was wearing a University of Kentucky sweatshirt. I told him that I attended UK. We engaged in an interesting conversation about basketball until it was almost my turn to check out. Unexpectedly, he asked my name. I don’t know why, but I gave him my complete name. Upon hearing “Fortner,” which is an uncommon last name, he was startled. Coincidentally, his last name was the same as mine. He was a genealogist, and that brief conversation led to our friendship. He provided me with amazing information about the origin of the family name. I often think about the convenience of ordering groceries online but doing so this time would have resulted in a missed opportunity for that interpersonal exchange with a stranger.
The value of technology to communication is, in some regards, indisputable. Nevertheless, being a “screen dominant” society comes with its pros and cons, and perhaps one of the most significant casualties is the undervaluing of face-to-face interpersonal communication. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed both strengths and weaknesses in a number of social systems. It heightened the demanding presence of media technology while also highlighting the damaging absence of face-to-face dialogue.
Finally, of most importance is the therapeutic value of interpersonal communication. Speaking and listening to others face-to-face can reduce anxiety or conflict and oftentimes induce confidence or congruence. In the absence of words, it can sometimes be a hug, a handshake, a nod or a smile. Poet John Donne said, “No man is an island….” in his writings; psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about “belongingness” in his hierarchy of needs. The ubiquity of technology is apparent, but when it comes to communication, like Thanksgiving dinner, some things are better done the old-fashioned way.
Murray Fortner, Ph.D. is Department Chair of Psychology and Sociology at TCC Northeast.