Teen communication

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Zits for 11/7/2012:

But it's not just land lines — "In Constant Digital Contact, We Feel Alone Together", Fresh Air 10/18/2012:

Terry Gross: You had said before a lot of parents complain that their children will accept the parents' text message and respond to that, but they won't pick up the phone, they won't answer the cell phone.

Sherry Turkle: Yes.

Terry Gross: I'm sure you've spoken to children and teenagers about that. What's the explanation?

Turkle's explanation seems much too broad to me:

Well, I'm working now on sort of this flight from conversation project because really what I'm hearing is people saying to me, I mean this kind of phone-phobia, and also conversation-phobia. And people basically say – I mean, one 18-year-old says to me: someday soon, but certainly not now – I mean as though I was going to do something to him – certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation.

And when I say to people, what's wrong with conversation, they say, I'll tell you what's wrong with conversation: You can't control what you're going to say, and you don't know how long it's going to take or where it could go. And that's exactly what's wrong with conversation, but that's exactly what's right with conversation.

And this is the kind of thing that people feel they don't have time for in the incredibly busy lives and stressed lives that they have, and it's what people are getting used to not wanting to make space for, emotionally.

I see high-school and college age students having face-to-face conversations all the time, with one another and with adults; and adults seem to be having face-to-face conversations more or less as much as they ever did; and I don't hear people of any age telling me that they strongly dislike such conversations. (At least not more than they ever did.)

Perhaps there are more communicative alternatives now –though if texting and (among older people) email are up, paper letters and telegrams are correspondingly down. But if there's any increased general aversion to face-to-face conversations, it's not obvious to me, nor can I find any systematic evidence supporting this idea. In contrast, an aversion to voice telephone calls on the part of teenagers is openly discussed among the teens that I know.

I haven't seen any survey evidence supporting this anecdotal impression, but at least it's objectively verified that voice calling rates are down in the relevant demographics (Dino Grandoni, "Texting Dominates As Teens And Young Adults Make Fewer Phone Calls", HuffPo 7/18/2012).

Things used to be different, at least stereotypically.  The picture on the right, from some time around 1950 (?), comes from Nina Leen's photographic ethnology of American life:

Nina Leen's fascination with the world viewed through a camera lens extends to both the human and animal kingdom. Born in Russia, Leen grew up in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, where she achieved acclaim as an animal photographer. Upon first arriving in the United States in 1939, her reporter's eye led to a series of wryly amusing works on the habits and rituals of her newly adopted homeland. Her series on, "A Teenager Monopolizes the Telephone," or her descriptions and images of "The American Male," are timeless evocations of symbols of modern American society.

More recently, the internets were full of advice like Jae Ireland's "How to stop a teenager from using the phone" 12/4/2009:

When your teenager is constantly monopolizing your phone line or causing you to miss calls, changing your policy for the home phone might be necessary for everyone's sanity. Whether you decide to get your teen his own phone or simply unplug the phone altogether, expect some resistance. If your teenager's phone use is disrupting your life, stop him from using the home phone and find other solutions that will keep everyone happy.

Or consider the telephone scene in "Bye Bye Birdie", where teens in Sweet Apple, Ohio, are shown "monopolizing telephones in seemingly endless and inconsequential conversations":

And less than ten years ago, hardly anyone in the U.S. had ever sent or received a "text message", long after SMS messaging had been ubiquitous in Europe and Japan (see the discussion and links in "What caused the texting tsunami", 6/6/2011).

Over the past decade, there have been two apparently-connected developments. First,  in 2001 Americans sent an average of only 0.3 SMS per month per mobile subscriber, and in 2003,  the Economist headlined an article as "No text please, we're American: Text messaging is popular in Europe and Asia, but not in America. Why?". As late as 2004, I had a hard time finding any American college students who had ever sent or received an SMS. But things were changing in 2008, and in 2010 CNNTech asserted (following Nielsen) that "the average [American] teenager sends over 3,000 texts per month. That's more than six texts per waking hour." And second, among at least some younger people, the obviously associated decline in the number of voice calls is apparently developing into an outright aversion for the older technology, not just a preference for the newer one.

This story involves a complex pattern of technology, economics, and culture, each of which is clearly both a cause and an effect. It's a story that someone should tell. But I'm skeptical that "flight from conversation" is the plot summary.


  1. Andy Averill said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 6:56 am

    If you wanted to make the case that people (and not just teens) are spending less time conversing, you'd first have to allow for the fact that, thanks to cell phones, it's now possible to have conversations at times when you didn't use to be able to — when you're by yourself in the car, at the store, walking down the street, etc. Then, it's true, you might have to take some of that back to allow for the partial replacement of voice by text. Don't know where you'd end up.

  2. Marc said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    I've talked to one or two (not a large sample, admittedly) twenty-somethings (about half my age) at work about this. One person expressed the anxiety that on a voice phone call she would be at a loss for what to say, or would say something wrong. I think she felt a pressure to fill the silences and keep the conversation going, perhaps artificially. The medium of communication came bundled with expectations. She clearly does not have this fear about in-person conversations.

    I have had similar fears myself. When I first started in ham radio, I was very anxious when I talked on the air. Some of those fears were technical — am I operating the equipment properly, or will I violate some regulation. But, I also felt the same need to avoid silence, or the same uncertainty about if the conversation was over.

  3. Ilari Sani said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 7:06 am

    I'm reminded of a quote by Stephen Fry:

    "A telephone is a fantastically rude thing. It's like going 'Speak to me now! Speak to me now! Speak to me now!' It's like you went into someone's office and banged on their desk and said 'I will make a noise until you speak to me!'"

  4. Chris Kern said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    I don't like calling people because now that people have their cell phones on them at all times, it feels like interrupting them. This may seem a bit irrational but I've talked to friends of mine around the same age (early 30's) and many of them feel the same way. If it's something only semi-important you can just text.

  5. Marion Crane said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    Telephone conversations have always been daunting for me, both as a teenage and now that I'm an adult, so when texting and e-mail came up I loved it and still prefer it. It's not the conversation itself that's bad (like mentioned above, takling face to face is no problem), it's the fact that you're missing a lot of tells while having the conversation.

    Facial expressions and body language are essential (to me) for gauging whether the conversation is interesting enough to the other, or whether you're managing to avoid foot-in-mouth syndrome or not. You can tell none of this on the phone. Pauses can be perfectly normal and comfortable in a casual conversation, but are almost always awkward on the phone (precisely because you can't actually tell if the other is experiencing it as awkward or not).

    Texting and e-mail lack the same feedback, but at least there your reactions are not expected to be instantaneous, and you can take your time to craft an appropriate response.

  6. Brian T said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    Before texting existed, nobody had the opportunity to choose between texting and conversation. Now that that is a possible choice, the advantages and disadvantages of each option become apparent to people, especially the more tech-savvy younger generations. Of COURSE young people still have face-to-face conversations. But because texting has been endemic in a large portion of their lives, they're more attuned to the reasons why someone might prefer texting to conversation and vice versa.

    Anybody might have a grass-is-greener moment if stuck in a rambling, discursive conversation when a quick-and-dirty exchange of data is desired instead. And the converse could happen to anyone who is tired of using a phone keyboard to tap in long, elaborate musings that are being explored via texting but are more suited to conversation.

  7. S. Norman said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    For teenagers. The Alone Phone:


    I think the American Breed does the music

  8. Tim Leonard said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Phone calls are much faster paced than texting, so require faster responses. They're no faster than in-person conversations, but they lack the visual communications channel that (among other things) allows you to indicate a need to pause and think. So a phone call comes with much more pressure to perform at speed. That can generate anxiety, particularly among people (like me) with slow processing speed. I literally feel the need sometimes to plan what I'm going to say before making a simple call to buy something. Email and texting carry no such stress.

  9. Aelfric said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    I am in my mid 30's, and I have certainly noticed the "young people struggling in conversation" phenomenon. I have a certain sympathy, however. While I consider myself fairly adept in conversation (whether live or otherwise), I have a quite pronounced dislike of talking on the phone–and I always have, from long before cell phones had obtained ubiquity. While I don't go around trumpeting this fact, anyone with whom I interact for any length of time quickly figures this out. I think, at least in my case, it stems from a certain lack of conversational cues that are present in live conversation. I think a part of my brain feels more at sea on the phone. I have to do much more guessing about my conversational partner's emotional state on the phone than I do face-to-face.

    That being said, I should dislike texting even more, as it is perhaps the ultimate opaque form of communication. I don't. I quite like texting, but my odd makeup leads me to (confessedly) overuse emoticons. I can hardly text or IM without using punctuation to indicate the emotional or psychological context in which the communication is intended. As for the present subject, I go back and forth between "we're raising a generation of people who (like me) have trouble parsing emotional states" to "kids are just lazy."

  10. Karen said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    The difficulties inherent in phone conversations are many, and are part of why talking on the phone while doing something else – particularly driving – is so dangerous. Comparatively much more of your attention and focus is required when you don't have the other cues.

  11. CC said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    As an person in their early twenties who interacts with other people in in the teens and early twenty demographic on a daily basis, I can definitely say that face-to-face conversation, of the kind that human beings have participated in for at least 80,000 years, has not spontaneously decided to brake down amongst this generation of youngsters.

    However, I really do hate phone conversations as I feel that something gets lost and I feel like I have to say more to make up for that. Texting gets around that by offering both more time to plan a response and more expressiveness in the form of textspeak, emoticons, and other forms of language play.

  12. D Sky Onosson said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    I am nearly 41 years old, and I absolutely detest speaking on the phone any more than absolutely necessary. If I can't see a person's face, then I would much rather communicate by text with them (SMS, IM, email, etc.).

  13. Svafa said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    Like others here, I've never been fond of phone conversations, even before cell phones and texting became commonplace. However, for me at least, this extends beyond just phone conversations. I won't go through the drive-thru at a bank or restaurant for the same reasons I won't answer a phone call, even if I'm just making a deposit or getting something to-go.

    I don't care for texting all that much either, but it is great for quick communications with no pressing need of a reply. Emails are my preferred form of non-personal communication, allowing for carefully crafted messages and a record of previous conversations.

  14. wally said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    I don't text much (unless I'm trying to get hold of my teens) but as someone who thinks it is quite normal to send an email to a coworker who I could physically touch while still in my cubicle, I can appreciate that different forms of communication have different problems and benefits.

  15. Jon Weinberg said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    Based on an extremely small sample, it seems to me that study of the decline in teens' telephone use needs also to take into account Skype use. My kid, when he lived at home, used Skype a lot in contexts in which prior generations of teens would have used the phone; focusing only on phone usage will miss this.

  16. David Adams said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    I don't think it's mysterious. I never really liked talking on the phone, but cell phones have made it miserable and difficult. Calls get dropped, sound quality is atrocious, you can't hear both sides of the conversation at once, you can't hear yourself in the speaker like you can with old-skool phones, and the barely-perceptible delay is just enough to make talking over each other far more likely.

    Given all of that, having a real conversation via a phone call is hundreds of times more difficult than phone calls on good old land lines used to be. No wonder that kids–many of whom have never had a phone conversation on a landline–don't find the activity all that compelling.

  17. X said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    I was going to say what Ilari Sani said (by quotation), but since nobody else has reiterated that point, I'll speak up for it again. Telephones are rude; people who won't text because they like being paid more attention to are rude. A phone call says: Listen to me right now! I am important, and you will drop everything to attend to my needs! A text says: I invite you to respond to this information I'm giving you.

    There's nothing wrong with young people; old technophobes are rude jerks who refuse to conform to social norms.

  18. Dan M. said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    David Adams makes an excellent point with the fact that current-day phones are in fact terrible phones.

    I think there's a context to the comic in the the OP that's been missed and is important (though not highlighted by the comic). Inter-generational communication using phones is fraught not only with whatever disappointments younger people have with that medium, but also with the mismatch of expectations of the speakers.

    I'm in my 30s and only phone my peers when I absolutely need low-latency answers to a question. But when I call my parents to ask a quick question, it often becomes difficult to disengage from the phone call because they treat it as a conversation rather than as an short question-response (like text) that was only by phone to make it faster.

  19. Tom Quinn said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

    @ X:

    You must be young

  20. AMM said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    A phone call says: Listen to me right now! I am important, and you will drop everything to attend to my needs!

    The problem comes when the caller doesn't want to tell the callee to drop everything. There isn't any way to communicate "not urgent phone call" or to respond with "busy, call back later" with a phone. On the other hand, a text message doesn't give the same sense of personal connection, at least for us last-century folks.

    I ran into this when I called to check up on a friend of mine who hadn't had power since the hurricane. I got her at a bad time, and although she was in principle glad to get my call, the bad timing got her unnecessarily agitated. This probably would have been a good place for a text message saying "just checking up, give me a call tonight if & when you're free." Except I don't do text messages, and I'm not sure she does.

  21. linda seebach said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    Not a large part of the sample space, but . . . my son is autistic. He enjoys conversation, at least with people he's used to and when he's not too stressed "to make mouth noises." But he generally finds telephone calls less stressful, because he doesn't have to remember to turn on affect for the other person's benefit, and their non-verbal communications are typically invisible to him anyway. Our cell phones are superior in quality to any landline I ever had.

    But mostly we use email for casual conversation, and switch to voice if the typing gets burdensome. We can text, but don't since we're both online nearly as much of the time as we'd be in a position to get a text and those tiny keyboards are a pain.

  22. Rubrick said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

    This has more or less been said by other commenters, but I think a fairly large percentage of people have always disliked talking on the telephone; now that there are reasonable alternatives available, they're using them.

    As an aside, thank goodness the days are gone when, if you met someone cute at a party, the next step was to ask for their phone number and then — horrors — call them on the telephone. What a terrifying ordeal.

    Nowadays, exchanging email addresses is a pretty casual affair, Facebook friending even more so. And of course, given a reasonably-distinct name and a modicum of biography, friendly webstalking can take you a long way toward deciding whether to follow up at all.

  23. Bruce said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    One thing I've noticed about texting is that you can maintain simultaneous conversations with multiple parties (in principle at least. if you text fast enough, not a problem for today's young people).

    That's a clear advantage over phone conversations. And in fact even when if you manage to have voice contact over the phone — or heaven forbid in person — it's hard to get their attention to the extent of not texting someone else in at the same time — a behaviour that in the past would be somewhere between rude and obnoxious but now is the new norm.

  24. E. Beattie said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    Perhaps one problem with using the phone is actually at the recipient's end – a lot of people don't seem to realize that it's okay not to answer the phone. If I am doing something that I don't want to interrupt for conversation, I let it go to voicemail. If I'm having dinner with friends, I set it to silent or turn it off. The caller can leave a message.

    If you do answer the phone but don't have time for a long conversation, all you have to do is say "I'm sorry but I can't talk for long; can you keep it brief?" or some variation thereof.

    All you have to do is realize that it's perfectly acceptable to be unavailable.

  25. Belial said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    Linda Seebach: what cell phone do you have that is "superior in quality to any landline [you] ever had"? I would like one of those. Because as a couple of people on this thread have pointed out, the great unspoken truth today is that cell phones are crap. It's great to have the convenience of a telephone when driving or walking or whatever (well, no, actually, it's pretentious and intrusive). But no cell phone I've ever had or used, from the first one I got in 1992 down to my kids' smartphones that can do everything but toast bread, can compare for sound quality to the Western Electric phones that I made prank calls on in 1967. So, harrrumph.

  26. Kayla said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    It seems pretty clear why people prefer to text. You get (almost) all the communication you'd get from a phone call, plus:

    1) You don't have to drop everything to talk on the phone
    2) You don't have to ask your interlocutor to drop everything
    3) You can multitask
    4) You have time to think before responding
    5) You have an automatic written record. For example, if someone texts me "Let's meet at Bar Pilar at 7.30 on Tuesday", I don't have to write all that down. It's automatically on the phone. The written record is also valuable for sentimental purposes.
    6) The conversation lasts exactly as long as you want it to.

    But if the conversation gets emotional or complicated, then a phone call is required. I've gotten offended in the past, for instance, when arguing with a boyfriend he won't pick up the phone.

    Phone calls are also better for purposes of emotional support. If I'm not calling for any particular purpose, but just for companionship, I want to hear someone's voice.

    I'm 25, for the record.

  27. David L said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

    The point that Chris Kern hinted at early on and others have mentioned is worth emphasizing: moving from land lines to cell phones has changed the personal dynamics of making calls. When phones were firmly attached to walls and desks, callers had no solid expectation that the callee would actually answer. If you didn't want to answer the phone, you could ignore it, and say later that you must have been away when it rang. Everybody knew that this might well be a white lie, but that was OK because we all made use of it from time to time.

    But now that we are required to carry our cell phones with us at all times, the universe of plausible excuses for not answering has shrunk dramatically. You can only take so many showers in one day. Texting instead of calling gives the recipient more wiggle room. It takes away the pressure.

  28. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    I am 49 and was an early adopter of email because I have always hated making phone calls, except to very close friends. I did do the hour-long phone calls to boyfriend for a while.

    I don't text because I don't have a cell phone–the physical quality of the things interacts badly with my generally poor noise-filtering wetware. But I send a ton of email.

    I did phone banking for the recent election and after 2.5 hours I was a nervous wreck, even though I was calling known-friendly numbers (to ask if they'd voted and if they might volunteer) rather than potentially hostile ones. I could've sent and answered emails for that amount of time without much difficulty.

    I think there are several factors. Others have mentioned not interrupting the recipient, having a permanent record of the conversation, and being able to plan what you say. I also hate phones because of my poor noise filtering (I don't do big parties for the same reason)–I often have to ask people to repeat themselves. That was really bad on the phone bank! And it is easier to make the difference between a social and a task-focused contact in email than on the phone.

    Frankly, I think it's the teen/phone era that was an aberration. Many teens are very social and need to communicate. They used phones because that's what they had. Now they don't have to, and the manifest problems of phone use mean that they often prefer something else.

    I was recently involved in a campus-wide live-action game where the positions of "enemy" players was being shared *on Facebook* in real-time. That was weird, but it worked, and points out another advantage of email and other electronic media: one-to-many is as easy as one-to-one, whereas phone conference calls are very difficult to use well. (We do our weekly lab meeting that way as one member is on sabbatical, but it doesn't work particularly well.)

  29. Jadagul said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    E. Beattie: The problem with saying "you can just ignore the phone if you're busy" is that the expectations around phone calls have changed. Consider what Dan M said, which matches my experience: the main reason to use a phone call is if you need to exchange information quickly with low latency. That means that if I make a phone call it's probably an emergency. And if I get a phone call (that I wasn't expecting–I have friends who will text me and ask if they can call, and that's totally fine), I assume that it's an emergency. To the extent that if I get a phone call in the middle of a class or a meeting or something I'll usually walk out of the room to take it, because if it weren't that important no one would be calling me on the phone.

    Now, either of these norms is fine, but it causes problems when someone with your norms calls someone with my norms. After I left for college it took my mother and me several years to work out a phone etiquette that worked for both of us.

  30. Sevly said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

    I think calling is crowded out from both sides. It's annoying for all the reasons listed above, and I particularly agree with the analogy of banging on someone's door until they either answer or ignore you long enough. So when you need to just relay information quickly to a colleague, why bother interrupting them? Just text. And when you need to talk long and hard about emotional or sensitive issues? You can't text, of course, but why just stop at voice contact and leave yourself open to misunderstandings due to not having facial expression and body language cues. Just text to arrange a meeting and talk about it in person.

  31. Martha said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 1:34 am

    I agree with the above reasons for preferring texting, but to Kayla's #6 I'd like to add that you don't have to take the time to greet the other person, or take several turns to wind down the conversation. You can say what you need to say and be finished. Not that that takes a significant amount of time out of your day, but the ritual can take longer than simply saying "I'm running late."

    I've also noticed that not only do people dislike speaking on the phone, but they don't like leaving or receiving voicemail messages. People often don't expect to have to leave them and end up hemming and hawing. And then people don't like listening to disfluent or rambling messages, waiting for the person to get to the point, when they could just read a message (at whatever speed they want) that they don't have to enter a password to read.

  32. Rodger C said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 9:02 am

    I just want to interject how pleased I am to find so many people who, like me, approach the prospect of making a phone call with literal dread, for all the reasons given. I'm 64 and have been surrounded all my life with happy phone chatterers who've regarded me as having some rare, irrational phobia.

  33. Nick Lamb said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    Add me (born 1970s) to the list of people who never really liked telephones and are not sad to go days at a time without making or receiving a telephone call.

    Text messages offer the potential immediacy of a phone call ("Got the job! Booze at the Star now, come celebrate?") with the permanent record capability of a letter or email. Which pub are they at? Oh that's right, I can check again and see it was the Star. The worst feature compared to email is that (for practical technical reasons) multiple copies are sent BCC rather than with a visible recipient list. Is "Drinks at mine, 7pm" an intimate moment for you and the person who sent it, or standing room only at their house party? Still at least when you confess you don't know their address you won't have to interrupt dinner to do it.

    I might have something to add to the back-and-forth on quality. Several things have changed since the early days of mobile telephones. One is that service providers cut the bandwidth used for an ordinary call, by about half. They claim newer codecs make up for that, but as ever marketing triumphed over reality and the lower bandwidth call is identifiably worse, like choosing 64 kbit AAC instead of 128 kbit MP3. The other is that error-masking technology, which as I understand it is patented, seems to be left out of newer devices for cost-control reasons. So whereas a mobile telephone from a decade ago might have made a brief radio interference spike sound rather like a disfluent mumble or stutter (which your brain would ignore thanks to intensive training from real world conversations) today's phones might react to the same incident with a disconcerting silent gap in the call, an audible burst of static or other strange sounds that distract from the conversation.

  34. Rob Solheim said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    Maybe a little off-topic, but possibly relevant to this thread. I have no problem speaking at length on the phone in my native language, but as an Englishman living in Russia with less-than-perfect Russian, I get a feeling of dread answering the phone and speaking to my Russian friends and colleagues. It's no problem face-to-face, as all the visual cues both help my comprehension and allow me some leeway when struggling for the right word. SMS, IM and email allow me that extra bit of time and make communication less stressful in many situations. It has become easier over time, but I think the day when I can speak as freely on the phone as in person is a long way away…

  35. Kayla said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

    I agree with Martha. It kind of annoys me whenever someone leaves a voicemail message. I could read a text in a fraction of the time it takes me to dial voicemail, enter a passcode, wade through other messages I'd rather ignore, and listen to someone dither over the message they want to leave me.

  36. hector said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    Generally speaking, introverts hate phone calls and extroverts love them. When I hear my phone ring, I flinch. As others have said above, e-mail and text messages give people alternatives, which is a good thing.

    I once read Alfred Döblin's autobiography, in which he mentioned the decline in the quallity of his life brought about by the advent of the telephone. Before the telephone, if someone wanted to get in touch with him, they either sent a letter by post or by messenger-boy. After the telephone, everything was immediate: a certain leasureliness of life, and a measure of personal space had been lost.

  37. Yet another John said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    Am I the only one who found Jeremy's suggestion in the comic to "send her a tweet" a bit off? I haven't been a teenager for a while now, but I find it hard to believe that "birthday tweets" are now a Thing. Facebook birthday greetings, sure, but…

  38. Livia said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    I'm going to disagree (anecdotally and without statistics) about this being an age shift or a demographics shift. For me, it has been a personal shift. In the 90s, I was a talk on the telephone for hours person. And now, I'm a text first to see if people are interested in an IM/SMS conversation if you absolutely must have real time interaction.

    Birthday tweets, however, litter up twitter unless they are direct messages. Instead, Facebook is good for birthdays (and not much else in my opinion, but I'm a curmudgeon there).

  39. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    I still don't like to let a phone ring, but it's because when I was growing up, my family pretty much was tethered to the phone. My father was a veterinarian and the phone had to be answered right away. If it rang three times and no one had picked up, anyone at home was supposed to answer it right away.

    There were no answering machines. I was the oldest, and once I was capable of answering the phone, my mother had more personal freedom — she could do a quick grocery or post office run, for instance, while I held the fort. We passed the messages on to dad using a two-way radio.

    The thing I disliked the most were clients who were regulars and wanted to be remembered on the phone. I recognized them in person, but I wasn't good at voices. I would give a polite, "Can you please spell your name for me," and I would get, "Oh, you know who this is, I don't have to tell you."

    That put me in the dread place of trying to explain that I knew I should know them, but I actually wasn't sure, which pretty much always offended the people who insisted on being recognized. Caller ID might help prevent this behavior today, but plenty of people block their numbers.

    I also didn't get in the habit of talking on the phone for long periods until I was much, much older, because there was a five-minute phone limit at my parents' house. I also wasn't in the habit of revealing personal things on the phone because there were still plenty of party lines in the area (it was the 1960s), plus a small, local phone company in the next town with an operator who listened in with impunity.

    Now, I text back and forth with my adult children. Texting is quieter and more private. There are some people I know who benefit from getting a text saying I've sent them an email, since they don't check email regularly. Sometimes I call in response to a text if it looks like there will be some back and forth.

    My daughter recently told me that if she texted me, that meant she didn't have time to talk. She's right, but texting is easier on her smart phone than on my older cellphone (no keyboard), so sometimes I don't take the hint. As others have noted, both my children seem to prefer scheduling things by text and texting when they're watching tv or otherwise dividing their attention.

    What surprised me were the recent college grads I worked with who preferred to use their cell phones for all work-related calling. Even dialing a couple digits to used the company-provided intercom feature on the phone didn't appeal to them. It meant, however, that they sometimes got work calls when they were on vacation, off sick or once, fast asleep.

  40. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 1:48 am

    Okay, but what about long, one-on-one conversations that can't take place in person? I'd expect that this would still be something more common for teens than for adults (nighttime bedroom conversations) and I can't see how texting would fill that need.

    I'm a middle-aged introvert who has always hated talking on the phone (and most especially the tyranny of having to answer it) but did, and still does, have occasion for long phone conversations when meeting in person isn't possible (in my case, family and close friends who live far apart — mind, I don't like to have these long conversations very often, but occasionally).

    So maybe what we're describing in a roundabout way, as several have said here in one form or another, is that the telephone was the only alternative in the past but now there are different media for different purposes and the telephone is one of them, but only one of them.

  41. Frans said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 4:57 am


    Okay, but what about long, one-on-one conversations that can't take place in person?

    You arrange those through more appropriate, less intrusive media like texts or IM instead of just barging in.

    1: Can I call you?
    2: Not now, call me in an hour.

    Although a more realistic scenario for texting would be something like:

    1: Can you get to a computer?
    2: No, I'll get on in an hour.

  42. Lex Spoon said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 5:27 am

    Language is as much about what is not said, as what is said. The available communication options form a constant backdrop to any form of communication. When programming language designers think about adding a new construct to a language, they ponder the next-best way to express anything that would actually use that construct. If the next-best way is already pretty good, then there's no reason to add a new construct.

    Calling is the same way. A couple of decades ago, calling was the only long-distance communication mechanism that took less than a day for a message to go across. As such, when someone called, there were a host of possible reasons for it. Nowadays, if you receive a call from someone, you know that what they *didn't* do was send you a text or send you an email. You can make inferences from this. Among other things, there is a relatively higher chance that they are making a friendly call to catch up and have a lengthy discussion.

    Of course, all this assumes that the caller is aware of their options. Count me in in the camp that if you want to be part of modern society, you really do need to learn how to text, email, and message. It's a new component of literacy, and not a particularly difficult one.

  43. Frans said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 12:03 pm


    Among other things, there is a relatively higher chance that they are making a friendly call to catch up and have a lengthy discussion.

    Only if your plan allows for it. For me lengthy catch-up discussions mean Skype or equivalent, certainly not the phone — except in the sense that one might use Skype on their phone. My monthly phone bill starts at 0 and rarely exceeds even €2 for the combination of all the calling and texting I do. Phone companies have finally started to counter by offering free calls to all landlines in Europe and the US, but they lost me years ago. I certainly don't intend to switch back so they can push some inferior router-VOIP box combination on me.

  44. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 10, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    @Dan M, Martha: Not being able to get out of a conversation:

    A sketch from Big Train

  45. Martha said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    Regarding "late night phone conversations," those most definitely can be achieved via text, for some of the same reasons mentioned above (e.g., you can be doing something else). For an adult with a roommate, the quietness of texting prevents the roommate from being kept awake late into the night by your talking; for a teenager with parents, it likely keeps them from being upset that you spent half the night talking to your paramour.

    For me personally, lengthy conversations don't need to be switched to phone conversations. The only time I'd want to switch media would be in a situation where one message ends up being so long it takes up several texts. That should be taken to email, in my opinion, but it seems that among the people I know (aside from people who haven't yet figured out texting), email has become mostly used for official things (getting receipts for purchases, communicating with coworkers on work matters, sending resumes, etc.), and texts are used for the kind of social communication we used email for ten years ago.

    Jarek: Exactly.

  46. David said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 7:20 am

    Interestingly, there have been several recent reports that the number of text messages sent has actually declined in the US recently. With the growing number of smartphones, people are increasingly using internet-based messaging instead of SMS. This could be important, because there is no service more profitable to phone companies than SMS.

  47. Audrey W. said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    I can have long conversations in person and on the phone, but I prefer e-mail and text to phone conversations. I have a slight phone anxiety, in part because of the awkward questions my relatives always seemed to pose when I talked to them over the phone (about my love life, etc.) but never in person (perhaps because they could see my discomfort in person).

    The length of the conversation is also a big factor. Sometimes, I just want to chat for five minutes or so, but even with warning in advance ('I only have five minutes…'), that friend or relative will not stop talking! In real life, you can look anxious (and start to back away, when necessary). Other times, it's the opposite, and I want a long conversation, but can't think of anything to say when I'm on the phone.

    In e-mails, I can write about what I'd like, respond to whatever parts of my friend's e-mail that I'd like, keep it the right length, edit it to my heart's content, and then send it off, free.

  48. Sockatume said,

    December 3, 2012 @ 5:26 am

    Yes, unanticipated phone calls are rude. That whole generations grew up with them and learned to ignore this rudeness doesn't make them any less rude, and now we can do better.

    Voice calls, texts, and email carry with them an implied level of urgency, with the phone call being the most invasive. A phone call must be acknowledged or dismissed or it won't shut up; a text message makes the phone chime and demands attention, but is then silent and can be responded to asynchronously; an email, depending on how the recipient's phone is configured, may not even be noticed until the recipient takes the time to check their email.

    Before we had text and email, there was no choice but to barge in with a voice call whenever we wished to communicate at a distance, but we have more flexible ways of communicating now and etiquette has evolved appropriately.

    (That's quite aside from the fact that it's easier to send large amounts of carefully-structured information by email, and that text messaging dumps a lot of the handshaking that makes very short phone conversations inefficient.)

    If older people preferred phone calls because they were more social, they would in turn prefer video calling to voice. The fact that they're even less likely to use video calls than young people is a demonstration that their preference is entirely due to habit.

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