Digital Literacy Narrative

The Texting Dilemma

The telephone is an amazing invention.  You can converse with someone even if they are literally on the other side of the planet.  This feat of engineering is now overshadowed by video chat, the Star Trek-reminiscent communication that incorporates video into the interaction.  This new medium is even more like speaking in person, and is probably the closest technology will get us to actually being near someone for a long time.  However, telephone remains the most commonly used long-distance communication, as it has been for about the last 100 years.

Despite the telephone’s long history and reliability, many people in the younger generation prefer to communicate via text.  This is puzzling, because this is like the old fashioned way of sending letters, just a lot faster.  In some ways it is less convenient than calling someone, since it can take much longer to write something than to say it.

When you text, you miss many benefits of in-person conversation.  The biggest is that you don’t see or hear your listener’s reaction; you only read what they decide to tell you.  It is difficult to parry remarks back and forth through text.  You can’t hear emotion when you are texting, as you often can over the phone.  In some cases, you can’t even be sure to whom you are talking.

However, I often see people my age having long text conversations with other people when they could easily call instead.  I too, in spite of these issues, often find myself having entire conversations via text that could have been much richer over the phone.  Considering all the disadvantages of texting, why do people still do it?

Texting has many benefits.  Short tidbits of information, like where to meet after school, a grocery list, an address, or the most recent math assignment are most easily sent via text.  No introduction necessary, no brief exchange of greeting and “how are you?” that is almost mandatory in person to person conversation.  I can text a friend when I will be out of class so I don’t interrupt the lecture.  While on a road trip, I once chatted with a friend for an hour through text so I didn’t disturb the other people with me.  Texting is a quick and easy way to tell family and friends about special moments, and you can even send photos.  The many great uses for this medium have helped solidify its role in society today.

Consider the uncertain and impersonal nature of texting.  When I was home for Thanksgiving, I arranged dinner and a movie with a group of friends from high school, but I did it without making a single call.  I opted for five different simultaneous conversations via text instead of calling everyone individually.  Looking back on it, I wish I had called, partly because it would have been a more personal connection, and partly because it would have provided more time to catch up.  However I hadn’t spoken with my friends for several months, and so calling felt much more daunting.  The keys offered some insulation from negative responses.  If they said they couldn’t come, I could assume that they were just unavailable and not that they didn’t want to spend time with me.  However, it is easier to turn down an invitation via text than in person or over the phone because you don’t have to lay it down so tactfully.  Texts are supposed to be short—they are easiest to read and to type that way—so most of the time one skips elaborate explanations, excuses and apologies and gets right to the point.  When this happens, the recipient usually assumes the sender is truthful and that there are no bad sentiments, even without the nonverbal messages that would be so easy to spot in person.  The key word here is “assume”. You can never really tell what someone means when they send a text; you have to guess.  Texting benefits me, as long as I assume they remain my friends.

Is this practice good for the senders?  To analyze this, let’s assume that one of my friends didn’t come because he no longer cared for me.  He sent me a text reading, “sorry I can’t come.” When I read his quick response I assumed he was just busy, and my self esteem remained unscathed.  He also benefitted from this because he didn’t have to explain himself or give away that he didn’t like me.  On the other hand, if I had not taken it so nicely, he would have had no idea he was hurtful because he didn’t see my reaction.  Now lets assume that my friend was indeed busy, but was too lazy to explain, sending the same quick response.  He still has less control over how I understand his response.  He loses the ability to see my reaction and he can miss the clues that he is being hurtful.  Without the support of tone-of-voice, the same words can have a radically different meaning.

Some people use emoticons to alleviate this problem.  However, emoticons don’t fully compensate for the lack of emotional feedback.  They require conscious thought.  Genuine emotion is automatically conferred in body language, such as blushing, smiling, posture, etc, and vocal cues such as pitch changes, hesitation and the like.  Once you start thinking about what emotion to send in the text by selecting an emoticon you can edit the feelings you express.  The other person doesn’t necessarily get your genuine reaction.

Texting reduces accountability for what you say because of this guessing.  It is easier to apologize for something written in text than said out loud because one can simply say “oh, I didn’t mean it like that.”  People sometimes consciously deceive others by text because it is so easy to pretend to be someone else via text.  I have heard many stories of adults posing as teenagers online and in text in order to fool and abduct real teenagers.  Their strategy of communicating in text is effective because there is no verification.  All it takes to be a 15 year old boy is to write messages like one, and the recipient will mentally (and incorrectly) fill in the blanks, unaware that the person is not at all who they say there are.  People use this effect all the time for small things.  In high school, I once told someone that I would help her study for physics, but we did not establish a set time to meet.  She texted me a time later that day, but by then I had realized I was too busy.  Instead of cancelling the meeting, I just pretended not to receive the text, and then played dumb when she confronted me.  I regret doing this—I should have just told her I didn’t have the time—but the point is that it is very easy to lie in text.  For this reason, texting does not foster trust in a relationship like person-to-person interaction does.

Texting has its drawbacks, but it still remains a very useful mode of communication in many situations.  However in my life, I try to keep texting in its place and call people directly when I want to talk to them.  When I am about to text, I ask myself, “Don’t I actually wish to speak to this person?”

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