Communication: “I’d rather text than talk”

Walking down any street in Manhattan, central London, Barcelona or, indeed, any other central city area, we will meet a continuous stream of young people coming straight at us while either checking their phones or texting. It’s the fastest, most immediate and probably the cheapest social means of communication that we have. “Texting”, according to Sherry Turtle’s MIT study which has now been published in her book, ‘Reclaiming Conversation’ (Penguin, 2015), certainly has its place, but an over-reliance on it can endanger our ability to empathize and engage in conversation.

This over use of social media has become a problem for many to the extent that even Steve Jobs did not encourage his own children to use iPhones . Job’s biographer wrote that in Job’s family, the focus was on conversation. It is as Samuel Johnson once said “We have talk enough, but no conversation”.

Texting is as popular in Japan as it is in the States. Source: Flickr/ElCapitanBSC
Texting is as popular in Japan as it is in the States. Source: Flickr/ElCapitanBSC

The advantages of social media go far beyond its speed and low costs; it eliminates the whole tension that often exists in conversations and interpersonal relationships. It brings people all over the world together. This over use of social media can create a dependency, however, and its easiness can substitute our need for normal social and business conversation.

If, for example, we need to say ‘no’ to someone who may want us to do something for them or attend a meeting or whatever, a simple text message rather than face-to-face conversation can help us avoid a embarrassing situation . This, of course, is especially true where there is tension or stress in saying ‘no’ to colleagues or friends. Indeed, we even hear of texting being used in the break-up of relationships. It is a way to avoid unpleasantness.

It is easy to appreciate the advantages for many of texting, including removing this negative emotional input. Messages can be controlled; they can be edited before sending; indeed, they become a more rational operation, more factual, although they may reduce spontaneity of normal conversation, yet they do help us to avoid human conflict. Texting, for example, eliminates having to listen to others trying to pressurise us. Text doesn’t go where we don’t want it to go. We have control. We don’t have the inconvenience of having to look at the other person’s face or listen to their tone of voice.

More texts, less empathy

But it can be argued that emotion can be built into texts to some extent by using such words as ‘hahaha!’ or using one of the 154 animation drawings that reflect the emotion behind the message. As we can build some emotion into our messages, what then is the complaint? It is losing our ability to empathize with others, and if this becomes our way of life it will ultimately affect our ability to converse with empathy.

The word empathy comes from the Greek word ‘empatheia’ which translates as “in feelings” (‘in’ plus ‘pathos’). In general it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So the question that comes to mind is, is this form of technology actually an assault on our ability to empathise and ultimately on our ability to form true friendships?

Sherry Turtle’s MIT research project shows “that those who use social media the most have difficulty reading human emotions, including their own”. The same study shows that face-to-face conversation as opposed to texting, leads to greater self-esteem and an improved ability to deal with others. What the researcher advocates is balance between face-to-face conversation and the use of social media. But balance is often hard for young people.

Young people and convulsive dependency

The second point of the study is that many young people develop a form of dependency that is more akin to compulsiveness. One college student is reported saying that “rationally she knows that if she sends a text to a friend during dinner hour, it is reasonable that she won’t get a reply until after dinner. And that’s fine. But if someone sends her a text during dinner, she can’t relax until she responds”.

People feel compelled to check messages. They live in their own bubble furiously typing on keyboards and touching tiny screens. Indeed, one example of this mass compulsion is if one sits on a Brooklyn bound train at 5.00 in the evening practically the whole travelling population seems immersed in their individual bubbles. They appear not to even recognise their fellow passengers. They seem to have retreated into their own world and tend to avoid any normal conversation. As the MIT study says, “I don’t want to talk to people now”.

Texting does have its place but so does face-to-face conversation. It is a necessary balance to avoid the pitfalls of overuse and avoid losing our ability to empathize. We learn and practice our empathy in conversation and we need to maintain it  while not turning our backs on technology.

2 thoughts on “Communication: “I’d rather text than talk”

  1. Brian, I agree that its saddening to see a loss of conversation , however I have also observed how it is also changing an organisational dynamic. My teenagers organise gatherings and events in a totally new way to the traditional “calendar – confirm – attend” manner we baby boomers used. Events ebb & flow rather like a flock of starlings at sunset as the social group decides where it will land and go that evening – hence the imperative to continuously check and contribute to the flocks final destination. Its a bit odd to my sensibilities, but also free of commitment and massively social where you are in continuous communication with the flock via the umbilical iPhone !

  2. Great post, and I totally agree with you. I read the MIT research conclusion that regular social media users have difficulty reading human emotions. Other studies also concluded that people feel the urge to regularly check their messages, thus have a negative impact on their productivity.
    The over use of social media is a big problem and negatively affect communication skills, productivity and psychological and mental condition. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights.

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