Two recent stories about electronic communication — one in The Star and the other in The New York Times — have brought into sharp relief, for me, the hazardous communications terrain that many of us navigate.
The Times’ story emphasized the seemingly irresistible urge to text or check one’s smartphone while engaged in personal conversations. The story, titled “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking To You,” was illustrated by a young man crouching before, and shouting at, a woman busily engaged with her phone.
The story, written by Times’ media reporter David Carr, says society has come to this: If someone is “looking over your shoulder at a room full of potentially more interesting people, she is ill-mannered. If, however, she is not looking over your shoulder, but into a smartphone in her hand, she is not only well within modern social norms, but is also a wired, well-put-together person.”
“Add one more achievement to the digital revolution,” Carr wrote. “It has made it fashionable to be rude.”
The Star story, on the other hand, by Edward M. Eveld, primarily addresses the fading of the old-fashioned phone call in favor of text messaging.
Texting and e-mailing are not character builders, the way old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face conversations can be.
Example: I’ll never forget the days when I was a teenager and called girls up for first dates. I would start by going to a phone out of earshot of the rest of the family. Then, I would stare at the phone for a few minutes and think of what I might say and how I might lead up to The Big Question. I’d usually make one or two false reaches for the phone, pulling back my hand as it neared or touched the receiver. Then, finally, I’d pick it up and make the call. In most cases, my courage and preparation were rewarded.
More important, those experiences helped me learn how to make difficult calls.
These days, though, most teenagers don’t even have dates, much less make calls and ask each other out. They send a text, or place a call, saying something like, “Wanna hang out tonight?”
That way, you understand, it’s all very informal and virtually risk free. If the recipient texts back, “I’m busy,” you haven’t really been rejected. And you, the initiator, are covered because you really didn’t ask for a date.
As far as I know, our 21-year-old son has seldom “asked anyone out” in the traditional sense. It’s all text- or call-arranged get-togethers. The trouble with this type of arranging is that “plans” fall apart very quickly because more appealing offers come in. And no one has really made a firm commitment, so nobody should be able to claim hurt feelings.
Almost all electronic commitments, it’s my impression, are tentative.
Unlike our son, our 23-year-old daughter, an old-school sort, hates the assignation-by-text system. A couple of times she got together with a young man who called asked her if she wanted to “hang out.” At least once, after they had met up, it turned out he wanted to take her to a fancy restaurant. She considered that “bait and switch” and didn’t appreciate it because she is the type of person who likes to have definite plans and likes to prepare for the event or occasion. If a young man wants a date, she’d prefer that he call and state his proposition.
My guess is that a lot of people who rely on the text message or e-mail as their primary means of communication shun personal confrontations or difficult phone calls. They probably avoid uncomfortable situations by texting or e-mailing their regrets or bad news that needs to be imparted. In other words, they duck out the back door.
Which leads me to this…
Many times, I have advised against attempting to resolve any significant or delicate issues by e-mail.
Significant issues — and the people embroiled in them — deserve to be dealt with either in person or, at the very least, over the phone.
As Eveld said in his KC Star story, “Not only is it often rude to try to dispatch a touchy issue by e-mail or text, it doesn’t allow for the free flow of information and discussion that is often necessary, and it strips the exchange of the nuances that attend personal conversation.”
Eveld quoted Dan Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute as saying that face-to-face conversations are best because body language, facial expressions and voice inflection play important roles in personal communications. Voice-to-voice conversations are the next best thing, Sening said, because without it, “there’s a whole layer of information that’s incredibly deep that just goes away.”
Example: Last year, I was involved in a volunteer initiative that became somewhat controversial. In e-mails with the person who had the power to give the green light or kill it, I sensed a lessening of commitment on that person’s part. I called the person to try to get a straight answer. On the phone, the person reiterated support for the initiative. A few days later, however, I got an e-mail that said something like, “Can we just forget this? It’s taking up too much time and is too tiring.”
I was stunned. Not because it wasn’t the right call — it probably was — but because it so clearly cried out for a personal call of resolution.
While I’m smart enough to know when a personal conversation is in order, I’m not without my electronic-based failings.
My personal demon is the computer.
Between blogging, e-mailing and checking various web sites, I am on the computer several hours a day. When my wife comes home from work (thank you, dearest, for giving me the opportunity to retire early) I’m usually sitting at the computer. When our daughter comes home from yoga or her volunteer job, I’m usually at the computer.
When I’m needed for something around the house, I usually say, “Just a second; I’ll be right there,” as I try to wrap up something or get to a breaking point.
I often feel guilty about it and know that I tend to isolate myself with the computer. Nevertheless, I have a hard time tearing myself away. Just this week, my daughter and I were talking about our relationship, and she said, “A lot of the time, even when you’re there, you’re not really there. You know?”
These electronic tools that we have at our disposal are amazing implements, aren’t they? They are so helpful and have opened so many doors for so many people.
But it is immeasurably important that we use them responsibly and not allow them to push aside our manners and encroach on our availability to friends, family members and others. We are most alive when we are engaged with others, sitting across from them — talking, arguing, laughing, explaining — not exchanging electronic signals.