There is a social epidemic that has swept the nation. While it used to be contained to young teenage girls, it is striking adults at an alarming rate in recent years. It sounds like this: “Um, it’s kinda like, well, you know when you just can’t really, like, seem to just um say like what um you like want to say? Like, um, do you know what I mean?”
The epidemic is clearly some kind of communication disorder, but it lacks a name. We need a good label. How about Unintelligible Verbal Skills Syndrome? Adult Communication Avoidance? Teenage Verbal Nonsense Disorder? Arrested Social Development? I think that one fits best – Arrested Social Development – because it’s really all about kids not growing up.
This communication deficiency is a sign of a larger problem. It’s more than just the inability to make coherent statements with purpose and confidence. It’s the larger problem of young adults not growing up in their speech, in their manners, or in other social skills. It’s seen in adults who talk and act like immature teens, even preteens, in so many ways.
Historically, parents have taught young children to shake hands with adults, look them in the eye, and say something positive, such as, “It’s nice to meet you.”
Elementary school teachers work with children to say “please” and “thank you” and to begin sentences with “May I…” They expect kids to show respect, but they often feel like the world is working against them.
Middle school teachers know that kids need to be taught how to speak in public. So, we teach them the following:
- Stand up straight, so you will look confident. (Don’t slouch.)
- Look at the audience, as much as possible. (Eye contact is important.)
- Speak loudly and clearly, so everyone can hear you. (Don’t mumble.)
- Smile and speak with enthusiasm. (Bored people are boring.)
High school teachers require students to call them by their formal names, in order to create a sense of respect. “Hi, Mr. Callahan. What are we doing today in class?”
Many college fraternities teach their freshman pledges to shake hands firmly, make some eye contact, introduce yourself, and then immediately introduce whoever is with you by name. And when in doubt, do not be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, would you tell me your name again?”
The military teaches young men and women all about how to show others respect with their body language, their words, and all sorts of other good manners. Ironically, our soldiers, who are trained to kill, are often the most polite and respectful people in our society. It’s because they have been TRAINED to be polite and respectful, and they are expected to practice their skills in every formal situation.
But it’s amazing how few young adults do any of this. Frankly, too many kids are not growing up with any refined social skills. They lack manners, and they don’t even realize how it’s limiting them. Just imagine the job interviews.
I remember being a cocky high school senior, visiting with my dad and a college admissions officer (who happened to be a former Air Force officer) about whether I might be admitted to that university. After our visit, my father explained to me that my body language was all wrong in that meeting. I did not look the man in the eye, I slouched in my chair, and I appeared generally disinterested. In reality, my poor social skills had ruined the interview. Fortunately, I learned a valuable lesson because my father took the time to teach me how to improve in this area.
That is the good news: Kids CAN learn to be sociable, and those who can exhibit good manners and social skills WILL stand out from the crowd. People will take notice and will give them praise. These kids will be way ahead of the curve and will enjoy many benefits. They will be given more than their fair share of respect and help from teachers, coaches, and other adults who hold the keys to their future.
So, let’s end Arrested Social Development. Let’s be more deliberate in training young people to be more socially adept. It won’t come naturally to them, and the popular culture won’t be of any help. It takes training and modeling from people who care. We can do that. Can’t we? Can’t we help train a few kids – at least the ones in our direct care—to be well-mannered?