Do Better, A PSA: Is It Me Or Are People Lacking Basic Social Skills Lately?

June 10, 2018  |  

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As I get older, I’m trying harder and harder not to be that thirty-something who says things like, “These damn young millennials with their cell phones, anti-social tendencies and entitlement issues.” I’ll admit it can be difficult to navigate a world where people’s relationships are only as strong as their wi-fi signals, but what I’m learning is that these issues aren’t limited to twenty and thirty-something year-old hipsters with caffeine and social media dependencies. More and more I see these issues are resulting from a world where technology is changing the way we interact and where people’s attention spans are limited to the screens of their smart phones.

I’ll readily admit that I am guilty of standing on the train and deleting emails out my inbox that I otherwise wouldn’t give a damn about if I wasn’t trying to avoid contact (and OMG actual conversation) with a complete stranger. But I’d like to think a majority of the time that I’m still the person who is well aware of her surroundings and can sense when someone has been following me down the street for the past four blocks and that can make small talk and get to know someone new outside of an Instagram story. Whether social media is making all of us a little more standoffish and unaware of social cues, or we’re just all out here making a fool out of our mamas’ home training just because we can, we’ve got to do better with how we communicate with folks we encounter on a daily basis whether we’re ordering a cup of coffee or catering to a high-profile client in corporate America.

It’s easy to write people’s careless actions off as being rude or practicing bad manners. When someone doesn’t hold the door while walking out of an office building or doesn’t excuse themselves when bumping into you in a store, we take offense and assign blame almost as an instinct. We might even be quick to label the encounter as malicious and assume that for whatever reason someone is taking out their resentment out on the world on us personally, but I think the truth is a lot worse: Many of us are out here walking around in bubbles. We’re stuck in our own heads about what’s happening to us (or Beyonce), what errands we have to take care of throughout the day, the horrible night we had last night that we are losing focus of the world happening around us and the people in it in the present moment. We forget that although the Uber driver is there to take us to dinner with friends after we’ve already pre-gamed in the house, after all this is someone’s personal vehicle. They may not want a strangers’ bare feet on the dashboard where their daughter has to sit in the passenger’s seat on the way to school the next morning. We forget that shuffling and gathering bags in the window seat doesn’t work as well as a simple, “Excuse me,” to the person sitting next you when your train stop comes up. We forget that people aren’t mind readers and although we’re detailing our every step on social media, we oddly forget how to use the English language when it comes to real life social situations.

In an article titled “The American Loneliness Epidemic: Are Poor Social Skills to Blame?” published on Healthline last month, the author takes a look at a study that found that 46% of American surveyed felt alone some of the time or all of the time, and the age group the expressed feeling lonely more than all others were young adults aged 18-22. Dr. Soroya Bacchus, a board-certified psychiatrist in Santa Monica, California shares that she’s not surprised by the results because our country and culture doesn’t prioritize making connections with other people:

“It’s amazing how little stock we put in our mental health and our ability to connect with other people.”

“In fact, everything in our culture is geared to just the opposite.”

The study didn’t find any direct links between the prevalence of social media and use and lack of social skills, but did note that social media use isn’t exactly helping people feel less isolated. Bacchus says the issue has more to do with what we are teaching our children from the very beginning, and the truth is that life lessons in America focus more on competition, achievement and independent success rather than making connections with other people:

“We do very little, in terms of teaching social skills to our children.”

“We actually make them more anxious about their social abilities.”

She notes that while some schools may touch on “soft” skills like emotional intelligence, compassion, or mindfulness, most are focused on the usual — reading, writing, mathematics, and standardized testing:

“We spend time with everything else, to the point that it’s become a detriment.“”

“We have people who are awkward, who are socially isolated, and who feel socially phobic.”

In turn, I believe that in addition to not being so sharp with our social cues, we’re losing the ability to humanize the world. That Uber driver whose dashboard you’re using as a footrest could easily be a hamster behind the wheel, as long as you get to your destination. We’re no longer talking to each other or learning about one another which means we don’t see each other as other people to respect or show compassion towards. Don’t get me wrong, social anxiety is real. Leaving a voicemail sometimes freaks me out more than speaking to an actual person (Did I just leave my life story on a voicemail with no contact number?) And in a world of political turmoil and a movement for every offense known to man it’s not hard to feel like you’ve scarred someone for life by saying the wrong thing. But I do believe we forget how much we have in common with others because we’re too busy magnifying our differences. It’s easy to feel like we’re the only ones experiencing struggles or awkwardness at any given time. What I’ve realized is that when I’m able to be honest with the right people and look at the world through a lens where everyone has their own share of issues whatever level they may seem to be on, I’m able to more easily interact with other and practice consideration and clear communication.

There will always be misunderstandings but that doesn’t mean we shut off communication altogether and resort to inboxing and app’ing our way through life. Nor does it mean that courtesy and common sense are null and void. I work on a sexual and reproductive hotline where I spend most of my day helping folks navigate their birth control, prenatal and safe sex needs and concerns. What I’ve learned from the past two long years in customer service is that people don’t make it easy to accommodate them. You want me to help you figure out why you period is four days late but you keep getting a negative pregnancy test result, yet you’re ordering Burger King half way through the call while blasting Cardi B. in the background. Then you have the nerve to have an attitude when asked to turn the music down or repeat yourself. It’s almost as if our interactions with others have become mere white noise competing with our own needs, wants and issues.

We have to remind ourselves that we are functioning in a world that doesn’t revolve our needs, conveniences or comfort and not forget that on the other end of our interactions are other people with overdue balances, unruly toddlers, and whose paychecks are going to rent too. We all have worries and problems and are doing are best to navigate our way through them. The last thing we need is for someone to double park next to an empty parking space when we have five minutes to make it to the interview for our dream job. Maybe if we all took ten seconds to look up out of our cell phones to see how we’re contributing to the best or worst part of someone’s day we’d have a little less anxiety and frustration to add to the larger workings of the world.

Look, global warming is a thing and the presidency has turned into a reality show. We have enough to worry about without the inconsideration of others’ raising our blood pressure. So I encourage us all to put our phones down and take a look at the world and those around us and figure out how we’re contributing to the problem. Put your cell phone on silent in the crowded movie theater because your Rihanna ringtone is f–king up the one night the single mom sitting behind you got drop off her kids and get her some Michael B. Jordan. Parallel park your car so that recent college grad makes it to her interview on time, instead of sitting next to the empty spot. If you take a good look at the world, you’ll realize it’s revolving around a lot of other people too.

Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about  everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.

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