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Face to Face Still Aces Hi-Tech, Sometimes

By Kristen Cole

Conversation halts when Afiya Williams ’08, stands in the middle of the dining room and raps a utensil against her drinking glass.

Heads swivel to hear Williams make an announcement. Despite an array of electronic communication tools at her behest, “dinging” a glass—described in the manual for house presidents—remains an effective way to advertise campus happenings, specifically because it can convey enthusiasm, she says.

“Enthusiasm is definitely necessary,” says Williams, a program assistant for the Campus Center Activities Board. “It means you believe [an event] is worth other people spending their time to come to. If you are excited about your event, they’ll be excited about it.”

Afiya Williams ’08 (left) prepares to “ding” a glass during dinner time in the dining room. Photo by Lynne Graves.

Admittedly, sharing event information electronically, which Williams also does, can be faster and go further than doing so with a verbal announcement. The dinner crowd at a house is a much smaller audience than the thousands who receive the college’s twice-weekly e-mailed event listings.

But administrators and staff who work with students say methods of electronic communication are not effective in every facet of student life.

Residential life is one of those areas, says Rebecca Shaw, associate dean of student affairs.

Roommate disagreements that once merited a discussion are now often handled by e-mail and can sometimes make a resolution more difficult, says Shaw. Without the body language and vocal cues that go along with a face-to-face conversation, an e-mail reader can misinterpret the tone or intent of a message.

As many colleges have observed, it can be tough to foster a sense of community when students traversing campus have cell phones at their ears, discouraging them from stopping to chat with people they recognize, Shaw says.

For those reasons, Smith places a premium on fostering face-to-face communication. “We emphasize programs and spaces to bring people together,” says Shaw. The opening of the Campus Center went a long way toward that end. And Smith traditions such as Friday afternoon tea remain effective at gathering students together in one room for relaxed conversation.

Parsons House president Evan Sipe ’08 agrees that e-mail isn’t always the best way to learn about the people with whom you live.

“Especially with a new student, if you e-mail, everything may seem fine. But in a conversation you may learn that they are homesick or they are having difficulty with a professor,” she says. “There is a personal touch that’s lost if you can’t see the other person.”

But e-mail does have its place. As president of a residence that houses 64 women between a main building and annex, Sipe does not regularly bump into everyone who resides in Parsons.

“If you haven’t seen someone, it is easy to send a quick e-mail and say ‘we have to get together,’” says Sipe, with a laugh.

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