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The words, “Mr Watson, come here; I want to see you.” were famously spoken on this day in 1876 (a great year indeed for football lovers but I digress!) but not, as many of us might have guessed, by the erstwhile Sherlock Holmes to his doughty sidekick in the pages of one of his detective stories, but by one Alexander Graham Bell. Yes, they were the words spoken in the world’s first successful two-way telephone call (although we don’t have Mr Watson’s reply!).

140 or so years on, we live in a world of instant communication; think of Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, email, Skype etc. etc. and I believe this presents us with real challenges in how we raise and shape our young people both as educators and parents. There are several challenges with the kinds of communication applications aforementioned:

1. They are “instant” and so there is always the risk that the tone and content of what is sent has not been very carefully considered in terms of any likely emotional impact it may have on the recipient

2. Messages tend to be very short in most cases and so may be likely to contain over-simplifications or generalisations ; there is a growing use of images and symbols to represent emotions that is especially troubling in this regard.

3. Several of them are based on the idea of instant communication amongst a group of people and so encourage a “one-size-fits-all” approach to framing a message that, in fact, will be received quite differently by each of its recipients

4. The physical remoteness of the sender from the recipient can result in emotional remoteness as well; in the worst of cases this can result in quite bad cases of ”cyber bullying”

I took the trouble to establish that I have 52 emojis available to me in WhatsApp. This seems like quite a good number at first glance but is in fact miniscule when compared to the subtleties of body language, vocabulary and tone of voice that are in the communication toolkit of an emotionally literate adult. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about here….I wonder how many of us would react subtly differently to replies of “No” and “Nope” or conversely, “Yes” and “Yup”? What do we sense about the emotional state of the respondent in the case of the latter two? If someone replies in a text message, “Hmmmm…” does that mean they:

a) Disapprove

b) Are pondering

c) Are sighing wistfully

d) Are eating a delicious ice cream!

Then, of course, there is the emotional minefield of punctuation…..think of the differences between “OK”, “OK….” and “OK!!”, for example. And in truth, it seems the number of people who have a sophisticated grasp of how to use language and punctuation with real sophistication has dwindled to concerning levels. 

The challenge is there for us as parents and teachers and we should not underestimate the enormity of it. The truth is that despite our rapid move towards remote and instant communication, it is still true to say that high levels of emotional literacy are one of the hallmarks of those who rise the furthest in their chosen professions. 

“Despite a bevy of research and best-selling books on the topic, many managers still downplay emotional intelligence as a “touchy-feely” soft skill…… But evidence suggests quite the opposite: that high emotional intelligence (EI) is a stronger predictor of success.” 

Laura Wilcox, Director, Harvard Extension School

If we want the very best for our young people then we need to encourage them to:

  • be thoughtful  and careful in how they express themselves
  • consider the emotional impact of their choice of words, body language and tone of voice
  • put down their smartphones and actually talk to each other!!

date authored: 

Friday 10th March 2017 Africa/Kampala


School Director - Steve Lang