‘Screening’ our conversations
“The telephone is a dying institution,” said a CNN article on text messaging. According to a Pew Institute survey, text messages sent monthly in the U.S. exploded from 14 billion in 2000 to 188 billion in 2010. We have all heard the argument before: with the increase in texting comes a loss in communication and interpersonal skills. The alleged deterioration has reached such severity that an 18-year-old said to Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist Sherry Turkle, “Someday, but certainly not now, I want to learn to have a conversation.”
Even though the article argues about this “loss,” texting is not a regression but rather a change in how we communicate. And like any other form of communication, it has its own standards. They may be new, but that does not mean they are for the worse.
Even as we have improved dexterity in our thumbs, we have not entirely lost our oral skills. They will always be used with family, friends and the customer service representative on the end of the line. At the very least, we still remember how to say hello and smile at someone.
The extreme testimony of the 18-year-old is not an accurate representation of the new, tech-savvy generation. It implies that the person had never learned how to have a conversation. However, kids interact face to face. Turkle argued to CNN, “‘habitual texters’ may not only cheat their existing relationships, they can also limit their ability to form future ones since they don’t get to practice the art of interpreting nonverbal visual cues.” Yet when these habitual texters were young, they learned such skills, such as how to read body language and voice inflections, skills they acquired in youth and still continually use. As stated earlier, texting is a change in how we communicate, but that does not mean it has replaced more traditional forms of communication as older generations might believe.
Texting is related to another—and increasingly larger—part of our virtual culture: smartphones. A Nielsen survey reported that 49.7 percent of U.S. mobile owners have smartphones—and that was only in February. They have fulfilled their title and made us smarter, or at least more resourceful, by allowing us to access information within seconds, whether it is looking for the nearest FroYo or checking your class schedule or surfing Facebook.
Despite the advances made by texting and smartphones, they have not exactly improved our manners. In large lecture halls and conferences, and sometimes even in small meetings, people will start scrolling through their screens or tapping on their mobile keyboards. Sometimes they will attempt to be discrete and will merely use their phones at their sides. More often than not they will display their devices right in front of their faces, creating a seemingly impenetrable wall. That is not to say all texters and smartphone users are inconsiderate people. In a social setting, they might not realize the alienated feelings they evoke.
This makes learning phone etiquette especially important. The etiquette expert Emily Post Etipedia offers text messaging tips like not using texting as “an alternative to using the phone when calling would be considered rude” and not as a way to “inform someone of sad news, business matters or urgent meetings, unless it’s to set up a phone call on the subject.” Post also encourages people to be more aware of their activities by asking, “How are my actions affecting others and how am I perceived?” and “Am I in control of my device?”
While texting and smartphones challenge our etiquette, they are not as horrific as many people believe. People may be using their phones much more frequently, but that does not mean they are reduced to inarticulate communicators. In any public area, smartphone screens seem to flash almost everywhere, but we know better than to let these screens interfere with our conversations and decorum.