Talking Technology: Teaching 21st century communication strategies

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communication in 21st cenutry

When my son created a web consulting business as a summer job, I offered to have business cards made for him. “Oh Dad,” he said, “Business cards are so 20th century!”

It was an embarrassing reminder that communication norms are constantly changing, as are the technologies we use. My son’s generation share contact information on their phones’ social media apps, not with business cards. A similar shift has been the move away from business cards featuring fax numbers. “What’s a fax?” my son might ask.

Fax machines have had a surprisingly long life–the first fax machine was invented in 1843–but they have been largely retired because it’s easier to send images of documents via email attachments.

More recent technologies, such as the 1992 invention of text messages, seem here to stay, but continue to evolve with innovations like emojis, a 1998 innovation whose name combines the Japanese words e (picture) and moji (character). 

The 55/38/7 rule and the three Cs

Changing technologies challenge language teachers who struggle to prepare students with the formats and the strategies they need to be effective in academic, business, and social settings. These challenges start with questions about why we have particular norms around communication. These norms form a culture of communication.

The artist/musician Brian Eno defines culture as what we don’t have to do. We may have to walk, but we don’t have to dance. Dancing, therefore, is culture. Communication is full of cultural practices that we don’t strictly need to do, but which make communication more successful. These include practices based on the 55/38/7 Rule and The Three Cs.

The 55/38/7 rule is often misinterpreted as being about what someone hears when we speak. It actually refers to the insights of University of California professor, Albert Mehrabian, who looked at how our attitudes, feelings, and beliefs influence our trust in what someone says.

Mehrabian suggests words only account for seven percent of a message’s impact; tone of voice makes up 38 percent, and body language–including facial expressions–account for the other 55 percent. The consequence of this for our students is that it’s sometimes not so important what they are saying as how they are saying it.

Another way of looking at this nonverbal communication is in terms of The Three Cs: context, clusters, and congruence

Context is about the environment in which communication takes place, any existing relationship between the speakers, and the roles they have. Imagine how each of these factors change if, for example, you met a surgeon at a party compared to meeting the same surgeon in an operating theater where you are about to have your head sawn open.

Clusters are the sets of body language expressions that together make up a message; smiling while walking toward someone is far different than smiling while carefully backing away.

Congruence refers to how body language matches–or doesn’t match–a speaker’s words. People saying, “Of course! It’s possible!” while unconsciously shaking their heads from side to side are perhaps being less than truthful.

How does a culture of communication practices translate to new technologies? Mobile phone texts, just like 19th century telegraph messages before them, need to be precise in conveying their meaning.

In virtual meetings, (on Skype and Google Hangouts, for example) students need to understand that tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language may be more important than the words they share.

Politeness as one constant

An additional key concern in virtual meetings is politeness. Once, in preparation for a new textbook, I was involved in soliciting topics of interest to university teachers. I was surprised that several teachers identified the need to teach politeness. The teachers pointed out that the brevity of social media meant that students were often unwittingly rude in their requests (typical email: “Where’s my grade!”). Moreover, such abruptness was crossing over to their in-person interactions.

Politeness includes civility, getting along with others, as well as deference, showing respect to those who may have earned it through age, education, and achievement. But politeness is also related to strategies around persuasion and about how to listen actively, engaging with other speakers by clarifying and elaborating points, and asking a range of question types. Online or in person, if students cannot interrupt politely or know when it is better to listen, whatever they have to say will be lost in the court of bad opinion.

This is particularly important in preparation for academic and business contexts where students need to interact in groups, such as seminar settings and business meetings. Within these, it’s necessary for students to be able to take on a variety of roles, including leadership, taking notes, and playing devil’s advocate to challenge what a group thinks.

Engaging students with project work

Role-play can help raise awareness of these strategies among students, but it’s not enough to just take on a variety of roles found in common academic and business exchanges; students need to be able to reflect after each role-play session and infer what strategies are successful.

Technology-based projects can also help students engage in a range of communication strategies. For example, a new Pearson series, StartUp, embraces technology in each unit by sprinkling various text messages and web-based research tasks. There are also multimedia projects where students use their phones to collect images or video and share the results in presentations that develop their critical thinking.

For example:

Make your own video.

Step 1 Choose a favorite restaurant or meal.

Step 2 Make a 30-second video. Talk about the meal. Describe what you eat and drink. Explain why you like it.

Step 3 Share your video. Answer questions and get feedback.

This simple project subconsciously reinforces the unit’s vocabulary and grammar. It also allows students to personalize the project based on things that they need to talk about in daily life–their local foods in this case. This means that each student’s presentation is unique. Unlike with essay assignments, students tend to work hard to craft several versions until they are satisfied because they know their work will be seen by other students and that they will be asked questions that only they can answer.

All this forces students to consider speaking strategies, as well as strategies for appropriate facial expressions and body language. Similarly, they have to use active listening strategies when listening to others’ presentations while asking questions. As technology continues to evolve, teachers need to integrate new applications into their teaching so students learn how to communicate with the tools they have at their disposal.

But don’t take my word for it; fax or telegraph this article to your friends, ask their opinions and leave us a comment below!

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