The telephone really is an amazing invention when you think about it. You can be talking to someone on the other side of the planet as if they were just behind a thin electric curtain. This feat of engineering is now overshadowed by the advent of 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 face-to-face for a very long time. However, the basic telephone remains the most commonly used long-distance communication by most people, as it has been for about the last 100 years.
Despite the telephone’s long history and reliability, many people of the younger generation prefer to communicate via text. This is puzzling, because in a sense this is just like the old fashioned way of sending letters, just in a different guise and a million times faster. It seems like 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 out on the benefits of in-person conversation. The biggest downside is that you don’t see your listener’s immediate reaction; you only read what they decide to tell you. It is difficult to parry remarks back and forth through text. You can never hear a person smile when you are texting, but sometimes you can over the phone. In some cases, you can’t even be sure who you are talking to. What bothers me most is that I too, in spite of my opinions on the matter, often find myself having entire conversations via text that could have been much more wholesome over the phone. So why is this so appealing to us?
Texting has many benefits. Short tidbits of information, like where to meet after school, a grocery list, an address for a party, or the most recent math assignment are all 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. You can text a friend when you get out of class for the day without disrupting lecture. There are many great uses for this medium that have helped solidify its role in society today.
On the other hand, longer text communication, or conversation through texting, still seems inferior to spoken conversation. So why do people still do it?
I believe that the main appeal of this kind of texting is its uncertainty and anonymity. This is also the unfortunate consequence of texting. When I was home for thanksgiving, I arranged a get-together with my group from high school to have dinner and see a movie, but I did it without making a single call. I opted to have five different simultaneous conversations via text instead of calling everyone individually. Looking back on it, I wish I had done this, partly because it would have shown my friends I was willing to go the extra mile to talk to them directly, and partly because that would have left some more time to catch up. But calling felt much more daunting, and I felt the keys offered some protection against my friends’ responses. 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. This is why it is so hurtful to end a relationship with a text. Texts are supposed to be short—they are easiest to read and to type that way—so most of the time one skips elaborate excuses and apologies and gets right to the point. When this happens, the recipient usually can assume that the sender is telling the truth and that they are sorry, 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. This is of course bad for the recipient, but advantageous for the sender.
Texting reduces accountability for what you say because of this guessing. It is easier to apologize for a something written in text than said out loud because one can say “oh, I didn’t mean it like that.” In addition, this reduced accountability 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. All we need to do is ask ourselves, “don’t I actually wish to speak to this person?”