My daughter had a sleepover party this weekend, and there was the usual best dramatic performance by a 12-year-old girl, the award rotating among the group by the hour. Not surprisingly, my wife the planner and supervisor was exhausted by the end of the evening — 10:30 for us old folks — but the girls weren’t even close to settling down by that time. By midnight, the constant conversation had gone on long enough, and loudly enough, that it was time for a curt “Good night girls. Time to sleep.” (My contribution to the evening festivities.) The chatter fell away, and blissful slumber reigned. Or so we thought.
We learned the next morning that our intrepid efforts to enforce sleep and silence had only facilitated and prompted a different form of communication than mere talking: texting. Yes, several of my daughter’s friends lay on their air mattresses and sleeping bags and texted one another until about 2 a.m., according to all reports.
Upon hearing this (thankfully not via a text message), I was torn by a few competing emotions. One immediate reaction was an overwhelming sense of how pathetic it was for these girls to be texting one another when they were a mere two feet away from each other. Still, a part of me admired the girls’ resourcefulness. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all, and texting sure seems more cool than stage whispers or note passing.
The whole event reminded me of several stories I’ve heard from co-workers and friends about how their older children absolutely refuse to answer a phone call from them, but will return a text message almost instantaneously. Or the probably apocryphal story of a carload of teens sitting quietly, the silence only interrupted by the tapping of the soft touch keys of their phones, all merrily texting each other.
Many have pondered the impact of this type of behavior and some have noted what seems to me to be extreme aspects of it. I will attempt not to belabor this point. However, I wonder whether one vital aspect of face-to-face communication will either start to become lost, or, by its very shortage of able practitioners, be something ultimately in high demand. I’m talking about the skill of picking up on unspoken aspects or clues in conversation that give it meaning and context, everything from eye contact to body language to facial expressions and so on. So much of what is communicated in a conversation is never actually said. Simply relying on text messages, no matter how rapidly fired back and forth, leaves so much that isn’t being communicated. I know that email and even phone conversations have some very similar limits. But I haven’t heard of two people sitting next to each other who are also talking to each other on their phones. (I’m sure it’s been perpetrated by some pathetic losers, but it doesn’t appear to be something that occurs with the frequency of side-by-side texting.)
My daughter is begging for unlimited texting on our family cellular package. And it isn’t the cost or the fact that she has appropriated what was supposed to be a phone shared with her brothers. What’s holding me back from paying the small extra cost for unlimited texting on her phone is a desire (perhaps unreasonable or definitely old-fashioned) for her to understand the value or a real conversation with someone that’s not limited or affected by gadgets.
I’m fighting a similar skirmish on a regular basis at work, where texting isn’t issue but it’s older sibling, e-mail, is. Many of our junior marketers – and some of our more senior ones, too – rely too much on electronic communication when a face-to-face conversation (or at least a phone call) would actually have several significant benefits, not the least of which would be a way to foster trust and good will. Many lawyers I know are also guilty of this, too, I’ve discovered.
This is one of the many lessons that I’m still learning about communication: More often than not, silence is not golden.