The Art of Conversation

Hi, my name is Michelle and I’ve been texting for ten years. I am an enthusiastic texter—complete with emoticons, purely for your enjoyment—and have heard everything from “you’re going to get carpal tunnel,” to “have you looked into getting that surgically attached?” And, for the record, I would not get my phone surgically attached only because I know Apple will come up with a new phone as soon as I make that kind of commitment.

I, like the 32% of the TIME Mobility Poll, would much rather send a text message than talk on the phone. Jeffrey Kluger, the author of “We Never Talk Any More: The Problem with Text Messaging,” agrees, “…I don’t want to talk to you on the phone,” he explains, “Nothing personal, I just can’t stand the thing.” Kluger describes phone calls as “intrusive and somehow presumptuous.” He is in agreement with Baym, the author of “Personal Connections in the Digital Age,” in the pervasive nature of the mobility of the telephone. Kluger feels as though the phone “sounds off insolently whenever it chooses and expects me to drop whatever I’m doing”—the feeling of anxiety Baym explains as stemming from the representation of “the paradigm case of mobility” (11).

Kluger gravely begins, “The telephone call is a dying institution.” And not without merit, as he has supporting statistics. The number of texts sent monthly within the U.S. increased to a staggering 188 billion in 2010, and most of those are, in part, thanks to the younger generation. Young Americans on average exchange approximately 88 text messages per day, as opposed to 17 phone calls and I am merely a part of the statistic. The author adds that even the older generation seems to be following this trend, as the ratio of text messaging to calling is 4.7 to 3.8.

Here, Jeff Kluger takes a technological deterministic view when he explains the concern behind the favored method of texting. In the article, Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist, argues that text messaging is detrimental to a child’s growth because conversation, meaning non-textual, teaches the kid to “have a conversation with themselves—to think and reason and self-reflect.” She describes text messaging to be a type of defense mechanism in which “The complexity and messiness of human communication gets shortchanged.”

How do they get shortchanged of the nitty-gritty of human interaction?

Judith Donath of “Sociable Media” explains the difference between unmediated communication, face-to-face, and mediated communication, anything from emails to telephone calls, with the abundance or lack of “cues.” Donath states the social cues—“words, tone of voice, gesture, clothing, facial expression, proximity”—provide information about the communicator, or the listener (1). She explains that we view language as means of exchanging information, but that as social creatures, “the participants are exchanging social information,” unknowingly (2). The article states that informational technologies are “often developed within the context of engineering and business” and efficiency and utility are “prized” but ultimately, people “quickly find social uses” (2). However, Klunger’s article seems to argue otherwise Turkle explains that without the practice of learning and interpreting the cues, the texting generation finds it difficult to understand and interact in the real world. Conversations over text take away valuable interaction skills the younger generation needs, as Turkle explains, the visual, verbal and physical cues are not available. Turkle states that kids have a “fear of conversation” and lists an example of an 18-year-old interviewee that said, “Someday… I want to learn to have a conversation.” In addition, adults take advantage of the efficiency and utility to “become conversation-avoidant.” Text messaging takes away the mandatory pleasantries of unmediated communication. Again, the text format allows for users to abuse it as a defense mechanism. Kluger describes the advantage of texting: in uncomfortable situations, “it’s less painful” and in addition, “You don’t have to fake an enthusiasm you’re not feeling.” The emotions involved in human communications are lessened, or completely void, which only further adds to the degree of separation technological mobility has introduced into our society.

Despite the blame placed on technology, Kluger offers an alternative in a form of “Social Shaping.” He recommends rotating the communication platform: “But mix it up some–maybe even throw in a little Skyping.” He explains that a separate medium can allow you to see and interact with another person–Kluger believes that it is a solution to Turkle’s concerns. However, as Baym still expresses concerns a different mediated communication is still inadequate as they “lack critical intimacy cues including touch and smell” (12). In the end, Kluger describes text messaging as “social shaping,” we have the ability to change technology. However, unmediated communication seems to be the only tried and true solution to mastering the art of conversation.

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3 comments

  1. I agree with the statement that texting has become the superior form of communication as opposed to actually making the phone call. In the fast paced society we live in, people want the quickest and most convenient form of anything; texting offers that. Especially in circumstances where you don’t really know the opposite party, texting allows you to avoid the awkward small talk. I, personally, text a lot more than using the phone, and don’t really like talking on the phone, which somewhat supports Kluger’s deterministic stance. I would not necessarily blame it on the technology itself, but I tend to feel awkward talking on the phone and find it more difficult to make conversation. Just last month I decreased the minutes per month on my phone plan and made texting unlimited. In Baym’s book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, she talks about social cues and how mediation creates a decrease in them. Minus the use of emoticons, texting is the most difficult way for a person to know what kind of tone, body language, emotion the other is using. The social cues are just not very present. I think this is why people are becoming more accustomed to texting because it is more comfortable to say whatever you want to without worrying about how the other party would react in that moment. When you are face-to-face you feel the need to respond in certain ways, and you can grasp the situation and tone better. When you are texting, you just don’t really care. You can be the way you want to be, even if you would never react that way standing in front of the person.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/08/why-texting-is-the-most-important-information-service-in-the-world/242951/
    I feel like this article expands on what you wrote about, and I found it quite interesting. It is an old article, but I still feel like it applies today, and it shows that texting has become something far greater than just back to back communication

  2. I think that because the telephone is intrusive in nature, people’s relationships to it have changed overall, but not just in that they prefer to communicate in some other way (ie text). Phone calls have become, I feel, a sort of privilege in the context of personal usage as opposed to business or professional purposes. Phone calls seems to be romanticized in a sense, as something of the past that we’ll now only do if the other person is someone who is worthy of that/someone whom we desire to have more sensual contact with than text allows for. We also have taken some of the intrusiveness away from the phone call by first asking if someone is free to talk or designating a particular time to talk on the phone. This can also be a means of evaluating those who are closest to you or who you grant the most access to your life- probably usually being family, best friends, and a significant other.

  3. I think Turkle brings up a really interesting and valid point about what it means to have a “fear of conversation” and be “conversation avoidant”. It’s particularly apparent when you think about all the people that break up with their significant others through text messaging, or the bosses that send their employees emails to let them know there will be layoffs, or even when your friend sends you a Facebook message to let you know they won’t be able to hang out anymore. What’s really at work here is an avoidance of confrontation–mediating technology has outcompeted face-to-face conversation as the preferred form of communication in most situations where people prefer not to deal with certain “social cues” that they know they will otherwise have to experience. Like Kluger says, it’s “less painful” to just type in a few short words, press send and have it be over with. The temporal and spacial discrepancies of mediated technology also mean that you aren’t forced to elicit the type of reactionary response that would be expected in a face-to-face conversation.

    Another interesting thing to think about is the way mediated technology shapes us through peer pressure. I know I’ve told my parents multiple times to “just text me,” and they’re actually starting to get used to it. But here’s the thing–does resisting these types of technology make you a luddite? Or does it just mean that the rest of us are doomed to a gradual decaying of our social interaction skills? These days it’s near impossible to resist any kind of new media technology use, and while we all consider those who aren’t using the latest technology “old-fashioned”, Kluger definitely prompts us to take a closer look at what technology is doing to those that do choose to utilize it.

    As for the idea of mediated technology as an escape route from emotion, can’t it also go the other way around? Often times we use it to express emotion we might not actually be experiencing. Do you laugh out loud every time you type “lol”? When you put three exclamation marks are you actually on the edge of your seat with excitement!!!? Is the frequent usage of emotive symbols and punctuation a result or cause of the “lessened” emotion that Kluger talks about? Do emotive punctuation even affect us anymore??!?!??! While it’s obvious that texting takes away certain aspects of face-to-face communication, perhaps there is a way that we’ve learned to recover them in some respects. What about the short, expressive acronyms like “rofl”, “lmao”, “smh”, “tmi”, etc.? Have they become a sort of phantom replacement for social cues or are they a new invention entirely? Mediated technology not only provides us an escape from emotion but allows us to feign it as well. Just some things to think about. Sorry this comment is so long.

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