WhatsApp and art of communication

WhatsApp has taken the world by storm. Smartphone use is growing by leaps and bounds and communication between people has increased tremendously because of this app. You can see the young using this mode of communication at railway stations, airports and restaurants. Dating couples now rarely gaze into each other’s eyes. They gaze into their mobile phones, instead.

Is WhatsApp really a revolutionary mode of communication or is it a prelude to the destruction of all forms of communication? Humankind differs from the rest of the animal world because of its unique capacity to communicate using language. However, communication before the WhatsApp revolution was not confined to speech alone. For lessons in communication, one needs to take a relook at the animal world.

The mode of communication which occurs in the animal world is predominantly non-verbal communication. This communication occurs at several levels — visual expression, olfactory methods, touch, thermal, electric (rare) and finally the auditory mode of communication.

Visual expression is indubitably one of the most important communication methods after speech. The eyes convey the complete gamut of emotions, ranging from anger to love. Eye expressions convey powerful thoughts and emotions, often far more than what speech would convey. The dilatation of the pupils and the rate of blinking are also important non-verbal cues.

American anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell coined the term ‘kinesics’. He objected to the term ‘body language’ on the grounds that it was inaccurate and improper to use as a definition. Body language includes gestures and facial expressions. Watching a person move his or her body during speech may communicate far more than the words themselves.

Olfaction, or the sense of smell, is the oldest method of communication. Do humans communicate using the sense of smell? A study published in the journal ‘Psychological Science’ showed that the sweat smells differently when a person is disgusted than when he/she is afraid. It was also seen that people who smelt the sweat reacted differently; people who smelt the sweat of fear developed fear and those who smelt the sweat from a person who was disgusted began to get disgusted themselves.

It is now known that chemicals called pheromones are present in human sweat. One of the chemicals is androstadienone, which is a male hormone present in sweat. This hormone is known to powerfully influence a woman’s mood, sexual inclination and even regulate the menstrual cycle.

Haptic communication, or the sense of touch, requires no description. It is well known that touch communicates distinct emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sympathy, love and gratitude. In the animal world, haptic communication is extremely important. However, the importance of touch has not decreased in humans. Handshaking, kissing and high-fives are all methods of haptic communication. Striking, pushing and kicking are also modes of haptic communication which convey negative emotions.

It is estimated that the verbal form of communication accounts for only 7% of all communication between human beings. Physical non-verbal communication accounts for about 55% of communication and Paralanguage is believed to account for another 38%. The concept of Paralanguage is interesting. It refers to the way something is said rather than to what is actually said. Elements like voice quality, intonation, pitch, stress, emotion, tone and style of speaking all account for Paralanguage.

Is WhatsApp destroying all these alternative modes of communication? Perhaps it is. Schoolmates waiting together for a bus seem to prefer to play with their mobile phones than to communicate with each other. The art of intelligent conversation is dying primarily because people would rather focus on forwarding half-truths and outright lies than spending the same amount of time in a rational conversation.

On the other hand, WhatsApp certainly has its uses. WhatsApp is an extraordinarily useful tool when it comes to communication within small groups. In terms of flexibility with respect to time and location, WhatsApp is indeed a truly powerful tool.

This brings us back to the fundamental problem: Is WhatsApp a bane or a boon? If used properly for small-group communication, WhatsApp is an extraordinarily useful tool. However, the rampant use of this app, replacing the known modes of communication, may not be a very good idea.

Humanity would do well to remember that the modes of communication enumerated above have evolved over the last 3.5 billion evolutionary years. Communication is the key to social evolution. It is widely accepted that a lack of communication would mean a lack of social evolution. The consequences of this lack of social evolution still remain uncertain.

Like the internal combustion engine, plastics and antibiotics, will WhatsApp also enter into that dubious category of human inventions which are more a bane than a boon? Perhaps, at this point in time, it is too early to say how the pendulum will swing.

(The writer is Senior Consultant, Surgical Pathology and Molecular Diagnostics, Neuberg Anand Reference Laboratory, Bengaluru)

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