Bad News Comes in Small Bytes

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Have we lost the art of having difficult conversations face to face?

Consider how you last heard some stinging bad news. Did the bearer of that news have the courage to tell you in person, or perhaps did you get the word by voicemail? Or how about the last time you declined an invitation — did you resort to email, so you didn't have to see the glance of disappointment on the inviter's face?

Increasingly, it seems that we rely on technology to mediate socially uncomfortable conversations. Whether it's our shyness at meeting new people, or our queasiness when having to deliver the honest truth, we've figured out that having a tech assist is easier than having a straight spine.

Look at how technology is freeing parents from having to be the bad cop all the time. We use television as an alarm clock for our children: when the show's over, it's time for bed, or time for school. We don't have to be the bossy parent who enforces bedtimes — we get to be the cool parent who lets his kid watch a show. Now there's a DVD filtering device called Clearplay, which edits out violence, sex, and foul language on the fly. You no longer have to be the meanie who puts his foot down with a stern, "You're too young for that movie." Let them watch whatever they choose, knowing Clearplay's got your back. And when they do get older, no longer does your teenager have to shamefully admit where he's been all night. Thanks to the GPS tracker in his phone, you already know.

We know someone has to be the disciplinarian, it's just that we all prefer to take the cheerleader role. We've become a society of coddlers. Be it to children, employees, or students, we don't come down hard anymore. At least not in the flesh. But with a gadget in hand, we're merciless.

Over in England, 2,500 employees of an insurance firm were fired by a group text message. The firm wanted everyone to hear the news at the same time, as if that was fairer. Instead, getting the axe by text only made the employees more offended. They looted the firm's offices of computers.

Why does a little technology make it so much easier to be a hard-ass? If you're going to fire someone, why is it easier to fire them with the push of a button than a face-to-face conversation? New research out of Princeton suggests that we actually process moral decisions in a different region of our brain when human contact is eliminated. If we have to confront the person, we process a moral decision in the parts of our brain that govern emotional empathy and social intelligence. If we only have to push a button, we process the decision near our temples, where we do our logical processing. We become dispassionate computers. And jerks.

We've always been warned that the consequence of so much technology is isolation. But perhaps it's isolation from consequences that we seek, because we lack the fortitude to face consequences in real life. In a recent poll from Britain, 54% of women under 25 regularly pretend to be talking on their cell phone in order to keep unfamiliar people from striking up a conversation with them. Now I wonder if my kids are watching television only to avoid having to talk with me.

According to a Microsoft survey, almost 4 out of 5 users report that bad behavior occurs online more than in real life. Half of those polled said it occurs "far more." One theory is that we lose our inhibitions online — as if we've all had four beers, and so we start saying things we don't mean. No doubt that's part of it. But maybe people are actually more honest online — and we prefer it that way.

It's easier to break up with a boyfriend by text message than face him in person; that way, you don't have to suffer through his tears. Just like it's easier to complain about restaurant service online than to tell the waiter there's a fly in the soup. And we enjoy confessing secrets to anonymous web sites visited by total strangers, but we can't admit that same secret to the one person we betrayed.

Thanks to technology, every literary agent can tell every author, "Your book's great." We let Amazon's rating system deliver the truth. Every politician can surround himself with yes men. Only the polls have the courage to say no. We're so accustomed to the watered-down, milquetoast version of news that when someone tells the truth, we're shocked and appalled.

The difference between talking in person and talking via technology is like the difference between an essay question and a True/False question. In face-to-face contact, far more than words are used to communicate. Tone is established, and para-verbal cues register mood. It's a lot harder to tell a convincing lie in person, and it's a lot harder to feign confidence. Rather than learn to manage these moments, we've punted it over to a realm where none of that matters.

In the creations of Hollywood, a person who enforces the rules is often the villain. Think of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Dean Wormer in Animal House. But in real life, enforcing the rules is actually necessary. So is resisting peer pressure, and learning to speak up in the moment. In real life, you might even have to introduce yourself in person, without first breaking the ice by sending a "MySpace Friend Request."

Social etiquette is apparently just too much work to be bothered with. Saying "no" artfully is old school. Using a little humor to soften the moment is pass. Expressing a little empathy is too time-consuming.

But when you have to tell the truth to someone's face, will you remember how it's done?