Remedial Social Skills?
Recently, an HR director told me that her company is planning a “remedial social skills” course for some of its new employees.
What exactly, I wondered, does that include?
For starters, she said, how to decide when to text, when to send email, when to make a phone call, when to show up in person for a chat.
That makes sense, I said. It’s a kind of business etiquette. After all, someone had to teach the Baby Boomers not to type in ALL CAPS.
But the real focus, she said, would be this: how to start a conversation, and how to know a conversation is over.
I found that disturbing--until I thought about it a bit.
The generation entering the workplace now is the first to grow up with texting and instant messaging as central ways to communicate. Both are ”asynchronous”--you always have time to think about your reply, even if all you text back is “LOL.”.
Face-to-face conversation, on the other hand, is real-time and spontaneous. Some kids, of course, are naturally social. But not all. If you’re an awkward adolescent, a bit unsure about what to say, which communication method would you choose?
This doesn’t mean the problem is with the technology--texting and IMing are here to stay. The problem is that we adults didn’t realize that now there may be another skill we need to start teaching, probably as early as elementary school.
The question of what we should teach will become ever more crucial as artificial intelligence enters the workplace. Skills like empathetic communication (which includes, among other things, conversation) and creative problem solving are two of the unique human abilities that machines won’t easily replace.
But at the same time, kids who grow up with one foot in the virtual world may have less and less opportunity--or need---to practice those skills. Some of the abilities we once took for granted, like conversation, may now need a bit of extra help in the classroom.