I have a friend from college whose preferred method of communication is texting. I understand. She has a teenage daughter. She’s had to learn the language of OMGs and LOLs. But does that mean I have to?
My excuse for not blithely jumping onto the texting bandwagon used to be the technology. I had an old-fashioned cell phone. It had numbers, as in phone numbers. I could not punctuate my texts. I had no question marks or exclamation points. But now I own a Blackberry. I can no longer say I can’t text. I can just say the truth: I don’t want to.
I understand the efficiency of the text message. You can ask a question and get it answered without all the niceties. “Is Frank still looking for work? How does Amanda like community college?”
But isn’t that what we do as friends? As a society? Check in with each other? Ask how we’re doing? Share? To me, nothing says ‘I don’t want to talk to you’ like a text.
I’m not a technophobe. I’ve happily incorporated technology into my professional life, snapping pictures of rashes with my cell phone and emailing them to my dermatology colleagues for second opinions. I have an electronic medical record. I use technology socially, too. I have Facebook friends. I blog. I have a web site I update myself with links and scanned pdfs.
But in real life, with my real friends I want more. A real conversation. A cup of coffee. A dinner date. I want less Facebook and more face time.
The other day I had a mother in the office with her two teenage daughters. Only one of the girls was there for her physical; the other was just along for the ride. When I walked into the room and greeted the family, only the mother smiled and shook my hand. The girls were both busily texting.
“Put the phone away,” the mother told the one who was there for a check-up.
“Why doesn’t she have to?” the teen pouted testily, jabbing a finger in her sister’s direction.
“Because she’s not the one with the doctor’s appointment,” the mother pointed out.
“But she’s the one who’s texting me,” my patient wailed.
I was speechless. Here were two sisters sitting in the same room, communicating with their thumbs. I guess it has its advantages. The teen sisters were able to keep their conversation silent. They weren’t disturbing or interrupting anyone. But it is still a distraction to me, as their doctor. I would like to hear from teenagers directly, as well as from their parents. But I can’t engage them or hear about their concerns if they’re buried in a cell phone.
I’ve tried banning cell phones from the office altogether. But these requests are treated more like suggestions, suggestions that are routinely ignored. I’ve even had teenagers texting while I’m performing their annual Pap smear. I can appreciate wanting to distract yourself from an invasive gynecological procedure. But it’s still a barrier. I pride myself in making girls’ first Pap smears a comfortable, normal, even empowering experience and I can’t do that if I can’t see your face.
But I guess my problem with texting is even more basic; it’s just plain rude. When a friend of mine reaches for her cell phone and returns a text when we’re in the middle of a conversation, keeping up her end with ‘uh huh, yup, hmm..’ she’s just not there anymore. She’s having a conversation with someone else now, not me. Texting cuts us off from each other in real time. I worry that we will forget how to connect. By keeping our messages abbreviated (literally) will we forget how to respond emotionally?
As a parent and a pediatrician it breaks my heart when I see a mother texting with one hand while pushing her daughter on a swing with the other. She cannot be fully present or engaged in either activity. I sometimes see fathers in the bleachers at their sons’ basketball games, texting, not cheering.
In her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT professor Sherry Turkle suggests that while constant texting may give the appearance of increased connectedness, these technologies may actually be keeping us isolated from each other. She argues that Facebooking is not the same as socializing. “Thumbs up or thumbs down on a web site is not a conversation.”
Amen to that. My in-box these days is often filled with emails of one word (if you can count LOL as a word.) How are we going to teach and learn the fine art of gentle discourse if we aren’t talking to each other?
The other night in my writing group, one member was describing being at a play recently and seeing a family of four all sitting side-by-side texting.
“We’ve become our own parody,” she observed. Touché.
Our challenge with all of this new technology is figuring out how to incorporate it into our lives in helpful and meaningful ways. No one is getting rid of their cell phones. Text messaging isn’t going away. It may someday be replaced with newer, faster, more immediate forms of communication, but for now, it’s what we’ve got. I hope we can figure out a way to use it to build connections, not barriers between us.