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Talking to people

What a great time in history to be a writer! Likewise, what a worrisome time to be someone gifted in conversation.

As communication moves toward text-based computer channels, we (as in, the human race) are gradually drifting away from an old way of doing business. We’re neglecting an important skill: How to talk to strangers.

The future is already here. We use Amazon to buy stuff. We order food on Seamless. We make restaurant reservations with OpenTable. We request cars to the airport with Uber. We schedule doctors appointments with Zocdoc. We check Yelp for a pre-judgement on everything.

Services like these remove the spoken word from business transactions. When was the last time you talked to a travel agent? Have you ever? (I haven’t.)

This is mostly fine. Doing business via an app or a website reduces errors and makes it easier to compare prices and make decisions. We can take our time. The new world of digital commerce is a blessing for shy people.

But we’re losing something, too. We used to get a lot of practice talking to strangers with these small manual transactions. We’d talk to somebody at the restaurant where we wanted a reservation and maybe learn a few things about the menu, maybe talk our way into a better table. We’d get to know the person who picked up the phone at our favorite pizza place. We’d talk to friends to find a good plumber or dentist or baby sitter.

Now we just load an app, flow through a hyper-optimized checkout path that a copywriter made a seductive as possible, and run our credit cards.

Then one day we run smack into a process that requires talking to people. Crash! We can’t negotiate a lease for an apartment with a smartphone. We can’t book a wedding reception hall online. We can’t get our cars repaired. We can’t interview for a new job. There’s no app for that. These are processes filled with friction and ambiguity. We have to talk to strangers. We have to haggle.

One school of thought says the Internet will eventually optimize all of these old, cumbersome processes. I don’t think so. Where there’s extreme variability and scarcity (like jobs and apartments), you’re always going to need to deal with people to secure the best outcomes.

So go ahead and use the apps that eliminate human interaction for the small stuff, like ordering dinner. But also get good at talking. The future still belongs to people who can carry a conversation.

Photo © Everett Collection/Shutterstock

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, Technology

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