Letter from Steve Piltch, October 2015

Steve Piltch
October 2015

Dear Shipley Families:

The school year is well underway, and the opening of the Shipley Commons has already affected the culture and energy of the Middle and Upper Schools in a positive manner. On a daily basis, there are students and colleagues in the building from 7:15 a.m. until after 6:00 p.m. Not only do people enjoy meals there (especially “grill time” in the afternoon), but they also study and engage with others on a regular basis and in an informal way. One student said to me at breakfast this morning: “Don’t ask me why, but the Commons gives us the opportunity to connect in a different (and more meaningful) way. I look forward to seeing people here – it’s great.” In a school that revolves around people and connections, this observation is a poignant one. His words also left me wondering about the difference between communicating and connecting.

Too often when I am at a meeting, people have their cell phones out, checking for voice mails, texts, and emails, or Googling for information. And, although they may be paying attention, they are not necessarily fully engaged. Their multi-tasking is distracting to others in the meeting and can convey the impression that they are disinterested and perhaps even want to be elsewhere. In fact, I would suggest that because of our preoccupation with our incoming communications (and our ability to get new information almost instantaneously), fewer of us are paying the attention to the issues at hand that perhaps we should.

We use our mobile devices to “communicate quickly,” but those communications often lack context and perspective. While we are exchanging information with others, we may not truly be connecting with them in the way we need to understand their message fully or to develop relationships with them. Ironically, as Sherry Turkle indicates in her September 26th piece in the New York Times (“Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.”), “A team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.” According to Turkle, much of this decrease is attributed to the increased use of technology in place of face-to-face communication.

Many of our children and many of us have turned to the use of mobile devices and social media to further enhance the ability to communicate and, in our mind, to connect. The numerous social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others, may make people “known” (or “popular”) without helping them create friendships. In fact, the use of these platforms has the potential to seriously undermine people’s ability to establish conversations that go beyond the superficial.

This dynamic can be seen on a simple level on Facebook, where people gauge their success by the number of friends they have. Aren’t Facebook friends really contacts rather than friends? After all, how many of them would one want to share his/her deepest secrets/concerns with? Not surprisingly (and as Turkle indicates), people are often more careful about what they post on sites and in texts for fear of rejection. In a more serious way, there are times when interactions on the sites actually cause participants to become distressed and to feel less comfortable in their social life. The essence of this problem is captured in a piece by 15-year-old Roby Karp in an article entitled, “I'm 15 and Snapchat makes me feel awful about myself.” Roby is not unique in her experience.

In her most recent piece (“Talk to Each Other, Not Your Phone”), Turkle notes that too often the use of cell phones and the search for information cause our conversations to be more transactional, with less possibility for real in-depth and emotionally-oriented interaction. She supports Sallie McKenna, who suggests that conversations, at least some of them, must be “where creativity is nurtured, where processing and connections happen, where noticing and sensing and calming can be.” And, as hard as it may be to believe, as of 2013, we now spend more time on cell phones than we do with our partners.

At this moment, we have the remarkable ability to communicate efficiently and to follow the world constantly. It comes with great trade-offs, however. While the convenience and efficiency are timesavers and are especially helpful in times of emergency, I am fearful that they hinder our ability to understand the world, those around us, and ourselves in the ways we should. The phone, email, and texting provide us with words that lack context. We learn so much from the manner, tone, and nonverbal cues that people use when they communicate with us in person. It is almost impossible to grasp a full (and accurate) understanding of what people say over technology, especially regarding controversial, complex, or emotional issues.

Personally, I have learned (with the urging of my family) that I need to put my cell phone and iPad away in order to be present for conversations and to cultivate the relationships that are important to me. I would suggest that it would be helpful to all of us to do the same. It will allow all of us to look people in the eye and have more conversations that lead to connections. We should work to use the phone and social media as tools to improve communication and enhance functioning in the world around us, not as the defining component of our social existence.

No matter who we are or what we do, we must remember, as Virginette Acacio wrote in “The Benefits of Face-to-Face Communication” back in 2012: “Nothing can replace the value of face-to-face communication. However, in a growing business, traveling to meet with customers and team members is not always feasible or economical. We communicate over email and phone, but even then, messages get misinterpreted and a sense of personal connection is never truly established or maintained. In fact, it’s said that over 90% of how we communicate is through nonverbal cues like gestures and facial expressions. With that said, one cannot underestimate the power of video conferencing to enable businesses to maximize the effectiveness of their communications.”

We are lucky to be in a school community where we have ample opportunity for face-to-face connection. I challenge all of us to email, text, and use the phone a little less, and speak in person a little more. Perhaps we can all start the effort in the Commons (stop by for breakfast from 7:15 – 9:00 a.m. and/or for a sandwich or snack in the Grill from 3:00 – 6:00 p.m.). I look forward to seeing you soon.

Warmest Regards,

Steve Piltch,
Head of School
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.