Creative Leadership

This Generation’s Difficulty Reading Non-Verbal Cues

Last year, Nielsen Research reported that teens, on the average, each send 1,742 text messages a month.  Just few months later the number had grown to 2,272.  That averages a more than 75 per day and growing. Think about that for a minute. At the same time, the National School Board Association estimated that middle and high school students spent an average of nine hours a week engaged in social networking.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when you add Twitter, email, IM, and more.

As a result, here’s an interesting concern that not many people have considered:  All of this social activity is through a computer or mobile phone screen, and none of it is face-to-face.

The question is – is an entire generation losing the ability to read non-verbal cues? In my own case, I don’t think I could function without that ability. Communication research has long known that non-verbal cues (facial movements, body language, hand gestures, etc..) often mean far more than the words being said.

In my own experience I use non-verbal cues all the time for reading the temperature of a meeting, knowing what my wife REALLY wants, or making a pitch to a client.  People with experience reading these non-verbal cues often make great managers and leaders, solve problems quickly, and get to the heart of an issue much faster. But then again, we were raised communicating with other faces, not with computer screens.

My advice?  Take every opportunity you can to make younger people aware of the power of non-verbal cues.  Rather than dismissing them as inconsiderate or rude, take a moment to teach them about the impact – and insight – that is communicated beyond words.  It just might save them years of misunderstandings and frustration.

Should I end this with an emoticon?    🙂

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  1. I don’t think this generation is losing its ability to read non-verbal clues. If anything, I think it is more tuned to different types of non-verbal cues as a result of all the experience and practice with social media. Stay with me here…

    Have you tried consoling a friend who was angry or really sad over a text/FB message? Its hard, haha. You spend a great deal of time ‘reading between the lines’ and reading their emotions. So instead of the traditional objects in non-verbal communication, here you’re looking at their latest status updates, the length of their posts, their emotions, how fast they’re typing to you, can you tell if they’re distracted / multi-tasking with something else, etc. So in a sense, it is harder than tradional non-verbal communication–there you have body language to add to the picture.

    So while a “texter” might not read hand motions as quickly as an older/more experienced person, I think they would still be very tuned in to reading a person non-verbally and knowing to look for things are not apparrent.

  2. This is interesting. Personally, I dont think the social networker has trouble reading non-verbal clues — I think they have trouble communicating their own non-verbal cues. Especially our youth. In my experience in dealing with teenagers, I’ve found that they do 1 of 2 things.

    1. They prefer to text you how they are feeling with words and emoticons.


    2. They prefer to talk in shortcuts and don’t really have expressions. They say things like “SMH” “WTexpletive” If they are angry, they say “angry” instead of showing it. If something is funny they say “comedy” instead of laughing.

    It’s like talking to a robot at times.

  3. @Nick, I think you’re missing the point. Yes, you have to attempt to be more expressive in your electronic communications, 1. Research shows that people add to an electronic message whatever tone they got from the sender at their last face to face interaction (for example, if it was not a good experience, the reader is likely to view the sender’s words as angry or sarcastic, regardless of how well-intentioned or heartfelt they are). 2. Phil’s point is not that they can’t adapt or communicate well, but that they may be losing the ability to read and understand an aspect of communication that is up to 70-80% of the message, because of this limited face to face interaction.

    (Or were you being sarcastic – cause that doesn’t translate well online)

  4. It would be and interesting subject to study, but I don’t believe this has happened yet. Therefore, it should be noted, that this conversation is pure conjecture. For all we know, kids are better at reading facial cues than others. Maybe the difficulty in reading comes with two much exposure to different cues, thus giving the individual too many samples to choose from.

  5. I am 30 and I got into AOL and chat rooms really early when I was 14, in 1994. I can only speak for myself here but basically I got into a bizarre online relationship with a girl and I remember feeling self-righteous in that I was getting to know her mind before getting to know her body. (I was raised Christian). I got really really good at those subtleties Nick describes. But with the help of a pastor I realized that we are not supposed to exist exclusively as ‘mind’ because we were created to exist as mind+body. So whatever temptation I thought I was skirting, I was depriving myself of the fullness of a healthy, flesh and blood (and mind) relationship.

    It took me a while for the pendulum to swing back after the initial realization—I shunned all technology for several years to actively build back the love of face-to-face interaction.

    I type this on an iPad, so I think I’m fine now. 😉

  6. Great blog! I think social media has effected not only our ability to read non-verbals but it has effected our ability to communicate as a whole. I think that to a certain degree it has made people socially retarded. You can walk into a coffee shop full of people that know eachother and they are all on their computers or phones texting, teething and facebooking. They are not talking with one another or interacting with one another but when they get home they will actually carry a conversation with the person they were sitting next to at the coffee shop via facebook. Why not just close the computer and talk face to face. I think there is a link between this social retardation and the fact that people can’t find there marriage partner so they lean towards online dating.

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