First off, this isn’t a young-folks-today rant. The fact that the younger you are, the more likely you are to text, is more about generational identity than anything else. Every group of humans, about the time they hit adolescence, look for some way to set themselves apart. To their credit, young people were the first to embrace the cell phone, a revolutionary tool that has changed everyday life.
But the obsession with texting, regardless of your age, is a backwards move to an older, more limited form of interpersonal communication. Simply put, written communication is the worst way you can choose to message someone.
I don’t mean to trash written communication. I love the form. I’m a writer, so I worship at that shrine. Of course, written words still work. So do film cameras, eight-track players and black and white TVs. But nobody uses those anymore because the newer stuff- digital cameras, digital music and HD TVs –are way better. By all logic, texting should be a horse and buggy, but instead it’s the SUV of messaging.
Texting, along with email and snail mail, has some serious drawbacks compared to calling someone up and having a live conversation. Here are the reasons why.
- Written communication is a one-shot, one-way deal. If your message is ambiguous in any way, the receiver doesn’t understand it. On the other hand, in a conversation, if the receiver of the information doesn’t understand, he or she can ask for and get immediate clarification.
- Have you ever sent someone a written communication which included several questions you wanted answered, and then the response didn’t address those questions? Frustrating isn’t it? If you had asked the same questions in an oral communication setting, you could have not only expected immediate answers, you could have asked follow-up questions. That’s one of the big weaknesses of written communication.
- Written communication has no non-verbal component. Non-verbal, things like facial expression, vocal tone, body language, how you dress, actually make up a larger portion of the message than the words, according to communication theorists. Of course, in a phone conversation, you don’t get all those non-verbal clues, but you still get some, like vocal tone, emotion, and accent. The more information you can gather from a message, the better the channel of communication. Because of its limitations, texting is the orphan of communication types.
- There’s something called presence, which is to say people communicate differently in face-to-face than they do on the phone. Example: Have you ever said something vile about someone driving another car? Bet you have. You felt comfortable saying that awful thing about them because not only were you not in their presence, you figured you never would be. Because of presence, people are most cautious about what they say in face-to-face situations and least cautious in written messages. Phone conversations are in the middle, but still have more presence than texting.
- Written communication is more formal and for that reason, writers can come off as pompous. Years ago, I worked at a newspaper, a pressure cooker every night trying to create the next daily beast. The news editor sometimes left notes about problems for the composing room manager. The notes often led to nasty confrontations. The solution? The news editor stopped writing notes and started having face-to-face conversations with the composing room manager. Nearly all of the conflict was defused.
- Written communication is more impersonal. It’s used in situations that are not personal, like textbooks, advertising, signage, and business letters. Can writing be personal? Yes, it can, like a love letter for instance. But conversation is usually more personal, and writing generally less personal.
- Written messages can be totally ignored. Do you respond to all the junk mail you get? Of course not. Do you respond if someone, even a stranger, speaks to you? Probably. Oral communication is harder to ignore. Ever send a text or an email and wait and wait for a reply which is delayed or never happens? Sure you have. That’s a negative aspect of written communication.
- So if texting is a lesser form of messaging, why is it so popular that you see people doing it constantly, in stores, in cars, in restaurants– just about everywhere?Texting does have one huge advantage. You get to remain more isolated from the person you are contacting. One of the strangest things about the time in which we live is that while communication technology has advanced rapidly, which one would intuitively think would lead to people being closer, people are more cut off from other people than ever, and it is by choice, not because it has to be that way.
- It is emblematic of a bigger problem, a breakdown in trust in society in general. In the dinosaur days of the old land line, back before caller ID, when the phone rang, you answered it, because it was likely someone you wanted to talk to. But that was before telemarketing, robo calls and heavy breathing callers. Now, everyone needs a layer of protection that didn’t used to be necessary.
- Finally, I’m not scolding anyone for texting, or for trying to be cool in general. If you want to wear your ball cap backwards, your pants hanging low, talk in buzz words, wear no-see socks and a hoodie, and check your smart phone every thirty seconds, that’s your right. But realize that texting is like traveling by hot air balloon. You may look really cool doing it, but it may be harder to get where you want to go.