The COVID-19 Generation’s Lagging Interpersonal Skills Carry High Risks

With the increase of social media and computer technology, Americans are spending exponentially more time in front of a screen and less time interacting face to face with others. This has already led to decreased socialization at critical ages when communication skills are formed. As the pandemic rages on, it’s exacerbated the situation by creating an highly isolated learning environment. With all of these factors at play, the COVID-19 generation of students may be fated to further lag behind in developing intercultural, interpersonal and nonverbal communication — skills that most acquire in school and are imperative interconnecting and forming relationships throughout our lifetimes.

What’s at risk if these skills are not learned?

If this student population falls short in developing this skill-set during the course of COVID-19, it carries great personal and societal risks. Communication skills are vital to building community, collaboration, understanding, trust and engagement. Learners who are not competent in interpersonal or intercultural communication, or who do not understand nonverbal cues, will most likely face an ongoing uphill battle to forge personal connections and engage in successful employment. The recent societal unrest, as well as movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, highlight the need for even more augmented intercultural skills that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion principles.

Feeling a sense of community and engagement is one of the best ways to be interculturally competent, given it’s how society best understands and accepts others. Students are missing out on things many take for granted, such as understanding and suitably responding to specific cues and social convention, and that may lead to stunted interpersonal and nonverbal skills.

In addition, according to the “State of Skills 2021: Endangered” report from Degreed, the demand for social skills such as communication are going to skyrocket in the coming years, as employers seek to build out their teams with well-rounded workers and leaders. With the ongoing decrease of competency in communication of all kinds, students may not have the proficiencies needed to land the positions they want and move up the ranks.

Post-COVID-19, employers will also specifically seek out workers who possess these skills and, if they’re unable to find them, it could carry over to employee retention and economic recovery.

Being interculturally and interpersonally communication competent is not only an individual need, but a societal one as well, and as educators it’s one we should be universally tackling.

How post-COVID-19 leaders can address these issues.

The first shift is that needs to take place is to move from a teacher-centered curricula and delivery approach to a student-centered or subject-centered approach. This means emphasizing real-world implementation using case studies, scenarios and practical application. Intentionally developing courses and curriculum to address the lack of nonverbal and intercultural skills is going to be vital as students emerge from the isolation of COVID-19, yet still engage largely with screens. Role playing (in-person, when safe, and through video conference) and discussion related to nonverbal and intercultural cues will help advance this mission. 

It also means integrating socially conscious content into the curricula for students to recognize and understand implicit bias, one’s own perceptions, and to increase knowledge and acceptance of cultural differences. This real-world learning should center on nonverbal communication skills and understanding to enhance interpersonal communication.

Next, building online learning communities can go a long way in helping to foster students’ trust and respect in others and to offer broader exposure to a variety of perceptions, ideologies and opinions. Additionally, ed tech can be used to enhance interaction, generate responses and enable more peer-to-peer learning. We should seek new ways to build community and communication though software that allows for collaborative annotation, situation simulation and gamification. Technology can also help educators create real-world case studies for students to move through scenarios in a variety of roles, particularly virtual reality software that can put learners in the shoes of others where they can gain a new outlook from experiencing culturally impactful situations. These days, there is a plethora of free or low-cost software that can help deliver this type of digital experience that translates closely into the real world.

The necessary shift from a teacher-centric approach to one that’s more student and subject centered, the need to incorporate social consciousness into the curriculum and intentionally building online learning communities using improvements in ed tech will go a long way in addressing the alarming decrease in interpersonal and intercultural communication skills among the unique COVID-19 generation.

Dr. Joanna Bauer, Ed.D. is the Vice President of Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer at Claremont Lincoln University (CLU), a non-profit online university offering master’s degrees through a Socially Conscious Education®.