Attended our daughter’s college graduation at The University of Texas at Austin recently. Having sat through many, many commencements over the years I had steeled myself for the inevitable tedium.
But like so many seemingly mundane events in life this one provided some fodder for reflection. Because it was a College of Communication ceremony I was hopeful I would learn something or at least be energized by the youthful enthusiasm and words of encouragement and congratulations from the dean and other speakers.
The keynoter was Shirley Strum Kenny, former president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Dr. Kenny did a very nice job with her address. After offering the obligatory words of hope to the new graduates, she zeroed in on the main thesis of her speech. Communication, she said, is a very tough thing to do, and surprisingly, all of the technology we have at our disposal today seemingly has not made it any easier. Dr. Kenny urged politicians and others to re-open lines of communication, to overcome the barriers that have derailed thoughtful and meaningful communication.
She likely did not know or even consider at the time that she was encountering one of those barriers as she delivered her address. The huge majority of the graduates sitting before her likely heard very little of what she said because they were all equipped with smart phones. They were too busy playing “Angry Birds” or “Words with Friends” on their phones. Some, of course, were taking and sending pictures. Others texted.
Dr. Kenny would be pleased to learn her thesis was proven just as she laid it on the audience. Tough assignment to deliver a speech that can pull young people away from slingshotting a bird into a building to crush some pigs or locking in a triple word score with a word like “qualify.”
As Dr. Kenny suggested, we live in a society plagued with over-communication. Trying to penetrate through the barrage of messages people receive each day is a daunting task. It’s a task made even more difficult with the emergence of social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Self-interest is at the core of communication and Twitter and Facebook take full advantage of that maxim. As Dr. Kenny suggested and experienced, it is hard to get a person to listen in a self-absorbed world.