I was at a writing workshop on the weekend and, over lunch, began chatting with a woman who has recently started dating again. Dating was an ugly beast when I was single back at the turn of the century and things have apparently not improved.

The writer I was talking with got a text message from a man she’d met asking her out. ”What is that?” she asked, palms upturned, eyebrows raised. ”Why is he hiding behind a text?” She’d expected a phone call. Something personal.
This made me think more about technology and how it may be changing us in ways we cannot yet comprehend. Another writer in the workshop wondered whether her teenage grandchildren were umbilically attached to ”those things”. She traced out a tablet-sized rectangle on the lunch table with the tips of white swollen index fingers.

”…and Elizabeth happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red….What could be the meaning of it?”

 Jane Austen  Pride and Prejudice

Gone are the days of two-hour phone calls or even signed emails written in sentences. And it’s all a long way from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth is constantly trying to decipher the meaning of a look or a gesture. Exchanges, especially for the young, are now both more superficial and more public than in the past. Given the ease of communicating electronically, teenagers are pulling away from face-to-face conversation.

The first generation of children are growing up talking through tablets and computers, texting and instant messages. This has left me wondering: Are we losing the ability to read facial expressions and gestures, to decipher inflections in voice and nuances in tone, to understand the subtleties of body language and the way a person moves?
How can we communicate honestly and find a true sense of belonging if we’re missing parts of what people are saying?

Charles Darwin believed that facial expressions and body language that accompany our primary emotions were a product of evolution and linked to our survival. Much of our understanding of facial expressions, especially the eyes, and other non-verbal clues come to us unconsciously. In face-to-face conversations, we watch movements in the other person’s face without thinking about it. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall called this ”The Silent Language” in 1959.

A recent study at the University of Pittsburgh supports Darwin and Hall. It shows that facial expressions evolved as we adapted to our environment and human social interaction. That our face is a visual sign of motivation and intent. Words alone are not enough; we link words with facial expressions to understand exactly what the person means.

Other studies on facial mimicry — where we imitate the facial expressions of the person we’re talking with — have shown that this type of imitation helps us recognize specific emotions and enables us to empathize with the other person. In studies where people were stopped from mimicking, say by biting a pencil, their ability to recognize some emotions, such as happiness, was impaired.

After all this it should come as no surprise then that one study showed woman are better at decoding facial expressions than men.

Of course there are huge benefits to technology: it helps people to stay in touch and video calls allow us to see and read people’s emotions from half a world away. But what happens if someone only has online friends? Is this belonging? What if texting and emails and social media means that we evolve away from interpreting facial expressions and gestures?

Language alone is not enough for us to be able to understand each other. To connect, to reach out for that sense of true belonging, we need to pick up on the nonverbal clues of the people around us.

We need human contact. Face to face.