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“The Machine Stops”: A 1909 novel by E. M. Forster that predicted our addiction with social media (like “Wall-E”, but written 100 years previously)

In my last post, I discussed how the emphasis on texting and striving to receive as many “likes!” as possible on social media can actually make people less social.

A novel was written about this inverse relationship…it takes place in a bleak future.

In this dystopian universe, most of the population lives underground. Each person inhabits his or her little cell and gets sustenance from the ubiquitous “Machine”. This is not a lonely world—oh, no, for people are glued to each other through the Machine, through which they communicate with all their “friends” and discuss ideas (most of which are not that good). This superficial world is a safe one, and most people like it that way. (They also get all their sustenance through The Machine, and eventually start to worship it as a deity.)

Does this world seem just a little bit familiar?

Travel is considered an onerous task and no one wants to do it: face-to-face communication is considered exhausting at best and rude and uncivilised at worst. In a scene from the book, the main character, Vashti, is on a plane. She stumbles, and the flight attendant touches her arm in order to steady her:

When Vashti swerved away from the sunbeams with a cry, she (the flight attendant) behaved barbarically—she put out her hand to steady her.

“How dare you!” exclaimed the passenger (Vashti). “You forget yourself!”

The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let her fall. People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.

What is this book—futuristic sci fi, written by a technophobe with a bad attitude who was simply sick and tired of too much texting?

No. This novella was written in 1909 by E. M. Forster (of A Room with a View and A Passage to India fame). Its title is The Machine Stops, and I’d recommend it to anyone; it’s a fabulous, easy read—and you can download it, legally, for free.

1909! This was the Edwardian era: pre-World War I, with men in stiff collars, women sporting stiff hair styles, and everyone with stiff upper lips. Queen Victoria had just died eight years previously. I’m astonished that Forster was able to predict the type of behaviour that is becoming all too prevalent today: an addiction to communicating on machines, and a resulting aversion to face-to-face communication

Now, who knows what all this online communication means for the future. Pundits have made dire predictions that have been totally erroneous; could be we’re shaking our heads over nothing. We’re facing a brave new world that, hopefully, will not become the kind of horrible, dehumanizing universe as envisioned by either Aldous Huxley of the real Brave New World fame—or that of E. M. Forster.

PS There have been a few video adaptations of this novella, but I would think a major production is in order. Here is one version:

 

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I know the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions—and I still can’t talk to strangers! What’s going on?

I was leading a workshop on Having a Conversation with Australians several weeks ago when a participant stated, “Look, I understand that you’re to ask people open-ended questions in order to have a good conversation. But once I ask this type question and they give a response, I’m like, ‘Uhh . . . OK,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”

Excellent point. First, let’s backtrack a bit.

#1, what’s the issue with open-ended and close-ended questions and socialising? Open-ended questions are just that: a question that requires more than a “yes-or-no” response. Close-ended questions are answered with a single “yes”, “no” or single-word response.

Close-ended question: Did you have a good time at footy yesterday?

A: Yes

Open-ended question: Tell me a little about the footy game you went to over the weekend; I’ve never been to one and am thinking of going to a game.

A: Well, FIRST . . . (and away they go!)

I’m sure you can see how trying to generate open-ended answers will be much more fruitful—and interesting—than simply getting a lot of “Uhh . . . yes . . . no . . . yellow!” as responses. That’s like pulling teeth! Generating extended narratives and (potentially) exciting stories is what you want for the following reasons: 1) The speaker will think YOU are a fabulous conversationalist (even though YOU’RE doing all the listening) and 2) You can really get to know a person this way and create a bond with that person. Which is what you want, whether you are seeking potential mentors, friends or business connections.

Active listening is what it’s all about.

But that workshop participants had a good point. Plying the active listening trade really is easy, but you should know a few tricks in order to become a master.

Let me give you an example. This young participant and I were doing a role play about chatting with someone in a café. The conversation was to be on coffee. (And using the old “come-here-often”? ploy usually falls F.L.A.T.)

P (participant): “So, err, what kind of coffee do you prefer?

M (me): “Black, usually.”

P: “Uhh . . . OK . . .” and she looked at me helplessly and fell out of her role. “See, now I don’t know what to do!”

So, what DO you say, now that you know this person likes black coffee? Lots! Scour your brain. What do you know about black coffee and human beings? Keep being focused on that person. Look at that individual closely and try and make connections between coffee and that individual. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the PERSON YOU’RE TRYIING TO GET TO KNOW. Here are a few options. They may not be witty, but they’ll get the job done and will require a detailed response from the other individual:

  • Black! Wow. You must be a real coffee connoisseur.

     

  • I tried drinking black, but I need milk and sugar. How do you get used to drinking black coffee?

     

  • Are there certain coffee beans that you like more than others?

  • I also love black coffee. Do you think certain types of people that like their coffee black? (This one may be a bit . . . yukky, perhaps like you’re trying to flirt. And if you are—try it!)

  • You look very fit (if the person does look athletic). Do you deliberately drink black coffee as part of your diet? (This response will give the person a compliment, AND demand a more detailed answer—killing two proverbial birds with one stone! Good on ya!)

You might NOT want to puff up your own knowledge and say things such as: “Coffee originated in Ethiopia, you know. . .” and then spout a litany of facts, or say, “I read a report that stated that drinking black coffee can make your hair fall out.” Remember, it’s not about you.

Let’s say this person answered to your #2 question, on getting used to drinking black coffee:

It took me a few years, but now I can’t stand milk or sugar in my coffee; it’s too sweet and rich for me that way.

Now, THERE’S an opening. You could then say:

  • You must be a disciplined person. Are you disciplined in other areas, as well?

  • Let me guess. You don’t consume many sweets, do you?

     

  • Do you eat cheese, then? Cheese has milk in it. I couldn’t live without cheese! (OK, this response DOES have “you” in it, but you are humorously contrasting yourself with that person who you are praising as being very disciplined.)

I hope you see the pattern here. FOCUS ON the person, LISTEN to the person’s response, make connections, actively show your interest in what that person has to say and see where it takes you.

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

 

 

 

Can We Have a Respectful Disagreement in this Age of Trump and Brexit? We Can Try!

I’m from the USA, and, like many, am surprised over the recent election results. These results have revealed an incredible, seemingly unsurmountable divide between Americans. We got a taste of this divide in the UK with the equally shocking Brexit choice. While I can’t speak for people in the UK, I can state that people in the good old US of A have forgotten how to disagree with each other respectfully. There seems to be an insurmountable divide: Many Republicans truly believe the Democrats point the way to hell, and vice versa. There is name calling. Violence. We’re acting like fearful animals under attack.

I’ve lost a friend in this election—a woman I still believe to be thoughtful, intelligent and incisive. Initially, I tried to hold a dialogue with her: “Show me evidence that Trump’s policies are viable.” It didn’t work, and we ended up digitally yelling at each other. It doesn’t help when all of us choose the media we think has “the facts,” and state confidently that YOUR source of information is biased and unreliable.

Is there a way out of this mess? I don’t know. Below, I’ve taken some tips by consultant Judy Ringer (http://www.judyringer.com/resources/articles/being-heard-6-strategies-for-getting-your-point-across.php) that seem to make sense.

  • Stop pushing your point of view. Try and understand your conflict partner’s point of view.
  • “Don’t give in, give way,” she says. Let your conflict partner know you are willing to hear them out and to seriously consider their point of view. Show the other person empathy.
  • Offer relevant information. Don’t say things such as “Your reasoning just doesn’t make sense.” That will get the other person’s hackles up right away. Start by acknowledging their argument, summarise it, and look for the one thing you can agree upon. Try and step into that person’s shoes. Don’t try to shove your point of view up that person’s . . . nose. Try and offer information that the other person might find actually useful.
  • Once you think your conversation partner might be willing to listen to you without blowing a fuse (and vice versa), start the conversation NOT INSISTING ON WINNING, but instead TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM. Maybe that person won’t be persuaded to come around to your point of view tomorrow. But maybe, out of the conversation, will come increased respect on both sides. One can only HOPE.

So. How do you communicate YOUR point of view, once you’ve heard the other person’s perspective?

  • a. Be aware that that person’s reality could be much, much different from yours. Research has shown that individuals are increasingly living in areas next to people who feel the way they do; watch the same programs that they do; and have absolutely nothing in common with people who think differently.
    b. Think of the interchange as one of mutual education, not one of blame or recrimination, and try to communicate this in a hopeful way to your conversation partner.
    c. Stay interested in the conversation. Try and understand the reasons for disagreement.
    d. Try, try to extend positive energy. I don’t know if I’d be capable of this; but it IS worth striving for!
    e. There are no guarantees. You two may end up staring at a brick wall that cannot be broken down. At least, try to end the conversation on a note of mutual respect.

What times we live in. More than ever, mutual understanding is needed to keep us sane!

I’m located in the Melbourne region. For a free session on communications and public speaking, feel free to email me for an appointment: arashap@eloquentenglish.com.

My website: www.eloquentenglish.com

How to Tell your Not-for-Profit’s Story

Have a hero and a villain

In my website (http://eloquentenglish.com/2016/05/02/the-power-of-the-story/), I talk about what makes a good story. It’s all about having a hero we’re interested in, the challenges (villains) that this person must conquer and his/her transformation at the end. The best stories contain some type of universal message that we can all understand and believe in.

Think of your organisation as the hero, fighting a villain. The villain could be world hunger. The abuse of women. Factors that keep people unemployed. Your organisation wants to change that. Does your website and other material effectively show your ongoing battle with the forces of darkness? OK, that’s a little exaggerated—but you want to paint your organisation colours of vivid transformation and luminous optimism. People react strongly to that. They don’t react to a series of statistics and non-passionate language.

Make people care through personal stories

Which is more powerful to the average reader:

660,000 women are forced into marriage every year 

or

When she was 12, Sasha was sold in marriage to to a 55-year-old man.

The second one will get your attention quicker. Certainly, statistics are important, but make sure that your statistics merely support the powerful story you want to tell.

Change

Business presenter guru Nancy Duarte shows how the most powerful business presentations have the same structure as the world’s most earth-changing speeches. Both these talks, Duarte states, describe a world as it is. The presenter then highlights a problem in that world (abuse of women) and how his solution will help eradicate that problem. According to Duarte, the best speeches continually contrast the “old” world versus the “new”, proposed world that is being presented in the speech.

Here is a website that does a brilliant girl of combing facts with the personal. The language is simple and powerful.

http://www.onegirl.org.au/

On the website’s front page you read:

MORE THAN 60 MILLION GIRLS AROUND THE WORLD ARE NOT IN SCHOOL.

“And we’re on a mission to educate 1 million of them.
And we want YOU to join us.

“It’s not okay with us that an 11 year old girl can be sold to a 55 year old man in the name of marriage. It’s not okay that a 12 year old girl is forced to sell herself in a brothel to earn money to survive. Stories like this that we hear each week are not inevitable. We CAN do something about it.

“Education changes everything.”

You get a statistic, certainly. But that statistic is stated vividly: 60 million girls are not in school. In doesn’t say “60 million girls are uneducated.” That’s boring. Onegirl make this statistic an actual activity–or the lack of an activity that can cause great harm.

They use the “it’s not OK” refrain beautifully to make it clear who the villain is: factors that allow girls to be abused.

Also, the organisation actually makes YOU—the potential donor—the hero. How smart is that? The website makes you believe that, with your donation, YOU can create a new, better world in which young women have a chance to contribute to this world.

So when you’re thinking about your organisation’s website, think passion. Heroism. changing the world. And make an unforgettable story about it.