Episode 9

Hello and welcome to episode 9 of No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for inquisitive students of English who want to be more fluent and articulate. If you’re new to the podcast, I’d like to welcome you and let you know that this podcast is best used with the interactive transcript and Quizlet flashcards available at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. All of the key words and chunks in this episode are annotated, which means that if you hover your mouse or finger over any text highlighted in pink you’ll see extra information, such as definitions, synonyms, register (i.e. that is to say is it formal, colloquial, literary, etc.). Bear in mind the advice I gave back in the very first episode, namely that you, as an advanced learner, need to focus on developing your productive vocabulary, that is the language you are confident using when speaking and writing. This means making use of the Quizlet flashcard sets for each episode and reviewing them on a regular basis.

Today we’re going to be exploring the intersection between friendship and technology. For many people these past two years have been an ordeal, that is, a very unpleasant and difficult experience. Now, if the pandemic has been plain sailing for you I’d love to know what rock you’ve been living under and whether there’s any space for me there. One of the reasons these have been trying times is that our relationships have been put under a lot of strain. Friendships that we thought were solid turned out to be anything but. People we thought we could rely on weren’t there for us when we needed them. Conversely, it’s likely that we’ve all disappointed people too.

If something is plain – or smooth – sailing it’s easy to do.

I was reading an article recently about the idea of pruning friendships. Now, normally you prune a bush or a tree, that is you cut back the branches in winter to allow for new, healthier growth. But people have started talking about this in the context of friendships. When you think about it, our network of friends is kind of like a plant. And if we’re diverting energy to branches that are half-dead, well, you’re spreading yourself thin, that is, you’re not concentrating your energy where it matters.

Nowadays it’s become quite trendy to talk about people being toxic and there are all sorts of gurus telling us how to cut these people out of our lives for good. I’ve had my fair share of relationship challenges over the last two years and I have had to prune some of my friendships. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that we need to avoid getting on our high horse with other people. Seeing everything through the lens of right and wrong isn’t particularly helpful.
Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with our friendships, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help my relationships thrive, that is, be healthy and vital.

I was talking to my friend Mélody this week and she was telling me about an important friendship of hers that has been languishing. Over the past year she’s been reaching out by text message and her friend tells her that she’s depressed but doesn’t seem to show any interest in talking. They’ve been friends for decades and they’ve been through thick and thin together. But now it’s as if they’re at a breaking point.

Marshall McLuhan, the most insightful media theorist of the past century, wrote the following about the impact of technology on society:

“The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and reevaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing -you, your family, your neighbourhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to ‘others’. And they’re changing dramatically.”

This is taken from the groundbreaking work The Medium is the Massage, in which McLuhan argues that the media that we use to communicate are more important than the actual message being communicated. While he may have been overstating his point, I do think that we can learn an important lesson from him. In fact, I think the quality of our relationships and our lives is at stake.

Going back to my friend Mélody. The situation with her childhood friend is a common one. Nowadays the main means of communication for many people are text messaging and email. In fact, calling people on the phone has become almost taboo, as if it amounts to an invasion of privacy. And yet we have empirical evidence that shows that telephone calls promote stronger social bonds than text messaging. The study participants said that they felt awkward about calling and preferred email or text messaging, but then when they spoke with an old friend over the phone reported feeling far more connected than the control group who used email or texts.

A few years ago I came across a similar study which showed that people who text rather than speak are less likely to make social plans to see each other in real life. Again, on the surface this doesn’t sound that surprising or worrying. But this is proof of McLuhan’s hypothesis: different media yield profoundly different cultures and values. It’s one thing for us to consciously choose to become more anti-social and isolated. But we’ve unwittingly adopted media that prime us to behave in ways detrimental to the social fabricthat literally keeps us alive.

the social fabric: our relationships bind us together like the threads of a piece of fabric

In The Medium is the Massage McLuhan quotes the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who said the following:

“The major advances in civilisation are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”

Now, this sounds kind of depressing, right? Well, actually I’m not so sure. If you think about this quotation, it actually puts our own circumstances in context. Yes, technology is wreaking havoc with our lives. But people were saying the same thing about the industrial revolution in the 19th century. And initially it did ruin many people’s lives. There were no statutory limits on working hours, child labour, pollution. Indeed, there was no such thing as workplace safety. And some of these issues are still a problem in many parts of the world. But on the whole this process has been for the greater good. But it’s thanks to thinkers, activists and citizens that this revolution was brought under control and made to serve humanity.

Likewise, Whatsapp and other texting apps are a staple of modern life. There’s no escaping that. But there’s nothing stopping us from rethinking how we use this technology. I would encourage you to have conversations with your friends about this. We need to negotiate expectations about speaking rather than texting. If someone isn’t willing or able to make the time for an actual real-time conversation then maybe a little pruning is in order.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Marshall McLuhan, here’s a link to an interview with him on Australian television from 1977. The Medium is the Massage is available as an affordable paperback and is chock-a-block with spectacular, thought-provoking illustrations by Quentin Fiore.

I’d like to draw your attention to something important about some of the chunks in today’s episode.

Here are some that share an important feature and I’m curious to see if you can figure out what’s similar about them.

it’s been plain sailing
have my fair share of challenges
be chock-a-block with

get on your high horse
be with someone through thick and thin
be for the greater good

Let me repeat them one more time.

it’s been plain sailing
have my fair share of challenges
be chock-a-block with

get on your high horse
be with someone through thick and thin
be for the greater good

You may have noticed that the first three chunks (plain sailing, fair share and chock-a-block) contain rhyme, while the others (high horse, thick and thin, greater good) contain alliteration, that is the repetition of the first consonant in each word. This is not a coincidence. There are lots of examples of chunks that follow certain sound patterns such as rhyme and alliteration. It’s not important to remember these terms for their own sake, but knowing these patterns will help you notice new examples of them as you listen to and read English. And being able to notice different types of chunks will make them more memorable, which makes you more likely to use them in your own speaking and writing.

I post a short video every day on my Instagram page BetterLanguageLearning exploring one of the chunks from the current week’s episode to help reinforce what you’ve learned.

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