Unless you practice the skills you'll learn in this book, you won't retain them. But that's difficult today because we live in a global society. We're in contact with people across town, across the country, or even on the other side of the world. But our contact usually isn't personal. The same technological advances that allow us such extraordinary access to others have exacted a toll—they have made face-to-face conversation relatively rare. Why meet with a client in person if you can phone him? Why have an actual conversation with Mom if you can leave a message on her answering machine? Why phone a friend if you can send an e-mail or an instant message? As long as the message gets through, what's the difference? Most of us have even phoned someone, hoping to leave a message, only to be disappointed when she's actually there to answer the call. Some of us even bow out altogether, relying on our assistants, kids, spouses, or friends to do our communicating for us. Or we settle into cyberspace, meeting, doing business, sometimes even becoming engaged—all on the basis of the sterile, electronically generated word, without the benefit of seeing someone or even talking to him.
All forms of communication are not equal. If I want to ask a favor of my colleague Alan, I have several choices. I can walk down the hall and speak with him in person; in that case, I'll be able to gauge his response accurately. Maybe he'll gladly say yes. Then again, maybe he'll say yes while wincing. Or perhaps he'll say no, but will clearly show his reservations. There's an almost infinite number of reactions I might see if I'm there in the room with him. Now, if I phone Alan instead, I'll be able to sense some of his feelings from his voice—but I may miss the more subtle undertones and I won't get any visual cues. If we e-mail each other, effectively squelching almost all human contact, I'll get just the facts. And what if I simply send someone else to ask?
Making matters worse, most of us purposely avoid meaningful conversation with all but our closest friends and family. When we do get together, we may be more comfortable saying what is expected or "politically correct" than what we really believe. Self-revelation comes hard to most people; those who confess their innermost secrets on afternoon talk shows are the exception, not the rule. The reasons we don't like to expose ourselves could fill a book, but undoubtedly the edgy, distrustful tenor of urban life is among them. From childhood on, those of us who live in or near big cities are urged to be wary of strangers; the concept is reinforced nightly on the local news. We urbanites often return from a visit to a small town marveling at how we were treated. Instead of the averted gazes we've grown accustomed to, we're met with a friendly "Hello, how are you?" from people who really seem to mean it! That level of spontaneous, trusting communication is hard to come by in the cities where most Americans live.
Most of us did not grow up in a community where our high school classmates became our dentists, our barbers, and our children's schoolteachers. Sure, we have friends and families, but the majority of people we see each day are strangers and therefore suspect. Because we fear them, we often avoid contact, and as a result we don't use our social skills as often as we could. Our people-reading muscles have atrophied from lack of exercise.