Conversation No More: The Cell Phone Revolution

Cristina Ferretti

If one were to observe the social atmosphere of a local coffee shop, it would be completely normal to see people with laptops set in front of them, phones nearly glued to their fingertips, ringtones intermittently filling the space with myriad text tones. Most perplexing of all, it is not an anomaly to see two people sitting across from each other both looking at their cell phones. With all of this social media, seemingly antiquated face-to-face conversation is becoming nearly obsolete. Today, texting takes precedence over a voice-to-voice phone call, and this lack of face-to-face interaction causes rudimentary conversation skills to be underdeveloped. Because of this, public space no longer constitutes grounds for open communication. Text messaging and Facebook messaging, abundantly prevalent among the younger generation, must be modified because their progression will ultimately take precedence over and end face-to-face and voice-to-voice conversation in public settings and over phone calls, just as much as they will damage the clarity of conversation. Ultimately what is at stake here is the younger generation’s ability to hold the face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversations that are imperative to function in society.

Texting and Facebook messaging can be beneficial as they are indeed accessible forms of contact and they can help people keep in touch with one another. Certainly texting a friend or parent a quick “call you later,” “love you,” or “sorry, running late,” is much easier than calling that friend or parent just to have such a brief exchange. However, the issue lies in the frequency of this texting and messaging, and how this frequency has caused people to prefer to stay hidden behind a device instead of engaging in what an avid texter may feel is awkward face-to-face conversation. This frequency of texting and messaging is particularly widespread among teenagers, and this has also been proven by a report conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. The report indicated that in 2011, eighty-percent of teenage Internet users between twelve and seventeen years old used a social networking site, and out of the eighty-percent mentioned, ninety-three percent of the users had a Facebook account (George Nitzburg, et al). Because texting and messaging are so widespread, it is normal to see people at a public place together while still absorbed in their computer or mobile device.

Because of the rise of smart phones, texting and Facebook messaging are becoming more frequent. Instead of the brief exchange that a text was originally supposed to support (back when phones were not equipped with a full keyboard, but rather with a T-9 word setting), texts are now facilitating full paragraph length exchanges to replace the in-person interaction that would have had to take place to have that long of an exchange. Teens are immersing themselves in their computers and cell phones and now that these devices support conversation-style speaking, the need to have a face-to-face conversation is not as necessary as it once was.

The increased texting among teens and their high use of Facebook spells disaster for interpersonal discourse. This is why teens now depend on using a screen to communicate and because they prefer this method, conversational skills are dwindling. If ninety-three percent of teenagers who use the Internet have a Facebook account, it is valid to say that they are by no means threatened by the use of the Internet for communication and, in fact, they probably embrace texting as the number of text messages has gone up drastically. Data from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) revealed that “more than 2.12 trillion text messages were sent and received in the United States from June 2010 to June 2011. This number has dramatically increased in just five years as 113.5 billion text messages were sent and received in 2006” (Hudson 28). The dramatic rise in text messages sent can be attributed to the popularity of texting in lieu of a direct conversation.

If a teen does not frequently engage in face-to-face communication and only communicates electronically, he or she may eventually feel uncomfortable when it is necessary to speak face-to-face. It is as if one were starting a car after a couple of days of letting it sit in the cold. It gets a little rusty when it first performs its necessary motions and most of the time, this issue is cleared up within minutes of driving. In the same way, a teen used to texting as a primary means of communication will feel that eye contact is strange, body language is confused, and it may take a minute or two of practice to feel comfortable speaking face-to-face. Speaking in-person is supposed to be natural; there should not be a need to accustom oneself to conversation because conversation is supposed to be an everyday, habitual occurrence.

Public spaces such as coffee shops, parks, bars, restaurants, churches, and even schools are places where interpersonal exchange is a normal expectation. In these places, it is not uncommon to meet new people, talk with strangers, or speak to acquaintances. Social media and mobile devices have infringed on public space, and the social atmosphere has become a concoction of cell phone use and decreased casual conversation. Elizabeth Tolman, a Professor of Communication Studies at South Dakota State University, noted in her study concerning communication and cell phone use that “Individuals have cell phone conversations while waiting in line at the grocery store, glance at their cell phones during meetings, check Facebook while having dinner with friends, have a meaningful phone conversation with a parent, and even text while sitting in church service” (1). Clearly, where people once engaged in casual conversation in social settings such as those referred to previously, there are now looming presences of cell phones and a decreased interest in conversation. Tolman published her observation of how using social media (texting, messaging) in a conversation setting causes the one using the cell phone to become a non-participant, passive member in the group conversation. Tolman explained that she had visited her parents at their cabin over the summer and while her family was taking a boat ride on the lake, her brother was on his smart phone and was physically present, but was not an active participant in conversation. The reason why her brother became excluded from the family conversation was because, as she noted, his minimal eye contact and response cues made him an inactive speaker and therefore excluded from the conversation (1).

As in Tolman’s case, those who actively use texting and messaging to hold conversations cannot actually hold a conversation in-person without the urge to check their mobile device. It is considered rude to check a mobile device while trying to hold an in-person conversation because this may convey a sense of disinterest as it did for Tolman’s brother. Despite the rudeness of the act, the urge to check mobile devices is becoming more common; in a research conducted study of thirty-two student participants, several of the participants indicated that they have developed signs of dependency of text messaging, such as hallucinating the tone or vibration that alerts a new text message in an inbox, feeling anxious when waiting on a response, or feeling anxious when removed from close proximity from the mobile device (Hudson 28). Young people like these students converse with each other and reveal their emotions to one another just like any other human beings, but if they are so dependent on their cell phones and cannot even hear the voice of the other person through the phone, they lose the ability to have a meaningful conversation.

Naturally, those who use a cell phone regularly would become less familiarized with interpersonal interaction. Engaging in face-to-face conversation teaches people social norms, what is considered polite and impolite to say, and where it is appropriate to fix eye contact with the other speaker. If a person never practices this kind of interaction, it becomes strange and unfamiliar and therefore, intimidating to the person. This is where problems develop among the large faction of youth that has been so exposed to messaging and texting: “A study of 301 participants (62% female, mean average of 19.44 years) showed that social networking activities are another venue in which psychological problems manifest in dysfunctional interpersonal interactions.” The definition of social networking activities mentioned above included both online activities (Facebook) as well as text messaging (Joanne Davila, et al 356). As the study proves, social networking activities assuage the dependency on texting and messaging and therefore, engender issues with face-to-face communication. For those who are not adapted to conversation and cannot handle face-to-face conversation psychologically, the technologically-mediated communication offers a kind of safety net.

Although it is true that this type of technology causes a “loss in translation,” or that it cannot be as informative or intimate as face-to-face communication, there are, in fact, advantages to these forms of communication. The resulting disembodiment and anonymity given by communication via messaging or texting may help a shy person who struggles with feeling that he or she cannot reveal anything personal when standing face-to-face with another person. Thus, this disembodiment can offer a measure of safety that may, in turn, facilitate the frequency and depth of conversation (George Nitzburg, et al). As it is clear, there is both a deteriorating side and beneficial side to messaging and texting. For the shy person who cannot handle face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation, this type of communication may feel like a solution to a very frustrating problem, but on the other hand, one cannot live life dodging in-person or voice-to-voice discourse.

The loss of translation in text messages may also coincide with not being able to hear voice inflections and not being able to see facial expressions of the other person in the exchange. On the phone, it is somewhat challenging to pick up on tone of voice or playful mechanisms such as sarcasm, laughing, or teasing in an exchange solely by listening to the speaker. In person, it is easier to understand the context of a social interaction and avoid any ambiguity because the two people engaging in the exchange are usually right across from one another or in close proximity. Because people have recently started to use texting and messaging as means for replacing this face-to-face interaction, there have been issues regarding ambiguity and because of this, a distinct over-analyzing of text messages. It is very common to hear people say (with regards to a text message), “I do not understand what this message meant, is this person angry with me, have I crossed a boundary, is this person not interested in what I have to say?” and the list goes on.

The issue regarding over-analyzing text messages occurs because it is difficult to impress personality on a text message; the sheer brevity of a text message, which is or once was commonly regarded as a characteristic of texting, entails ambiguity. In Discourse 2.0 Language and New Media, text message “personality” was addressed by explaining, “the brevity of the text message “Hey” means that the text message could be interpreted in many different ways, each possible interpretation entailing indirect meanings that could possibly have been implied—and equally plausibly denied” (Tannen 109). In other words, if a sender does not manipulate the word “Hey” and impress a type of personality on this word, the sender may come off as clipped and uninterested to the receiver.

Because texting and messaging are becoming the preferred communication of choice among teens, the over-analyzing deteriorates the clarity of conversation. As bizarre as it sounds to analyze the context of what a simple “Hey” means via text, people have come up with a new language discourse for messaging. Just as in-person conversation has a general social etiquette, media discourse is equipped with rules that aim to show the receiver a certain message. In place of body language, the pattern of a typed text or Facebook message is supposed to convey to the receiver a sense of politeness, interest, excitement, or even coldness from the sender. Texters and messagers manipulate the structure of a digital sentence using a combination of sentence augmentations, dragged out letters, emoticons, smiling faces, and punctuation to convey a certain “text tone.” The need to explain emotion and meaning in text messages illustrates how people are moving so far away from face-to-face conversation that they go so far as to try and decipher what the in-person conversation would be like. Deborah Tannen observed, “volubility versus taciturnity, capitalization, repetition, and emphatic punctuation [in the body of a text message] can be requisite, unmarked markers of enthusiasm in digital discourse, particularly among young women,” and she adds, “the brevity of text messages and the pacing of turn exchange all constitute kinds of indirectness that are particular to digital interaction” (Tannen 111).

Clearly, texting and messaging have prompted society to make social discourse complicated; people now have to decipher meaning through “metamessages” in electronic messages, and Tannen defines these metamessages as “indications of how speakers intend to say and what they are trying to do by saying [certain] words in [a specific] way in that [particular] context” (Citation). Teenagers find metamessages where none were intended. For example, teenagers measure the level of interest the recipient has in the conversation by noting the time it takes for that recipient to respond to a text message; they must determine how quickly they want to respond in order to send an unstated yet implied meaning that is to be open for interpretation by the receiver. This is how teenagers try to remain mysterious via text message, but in reality, it is making digital discourse and “conversation” much more complicated and convoluted than it was ever intended to be. Conversation is not a science project; there should be no reason to pick apart the metamessages to discover the underlying meaning of a sentence, but unfortunately, this is how teens are learning to converse.

Today, society, most predominantly teenagers, shirks face-to-face conversation in favor of texting and messaging. They even turn to more complicated methods such as deciphering metamessages to override face-to-face conversation and voice-to-voice phone calls. Messaging and texting infringe on the social settings that were once places to have casual conversation. Messaging and texting are so counterproductive to in-person communication because they make it difficult to truly understand the person one is engaged in conversation with and they also take precedence over in-person communication. Clearly, it is difficult to decipher the “implied” meaning of a message and this problem could be mitigated if messaging was not abused through overuse, or the discourse of face-to-face conversation (including the personality of a conversation) was not impressed on a message by digital means. It may also help if cell phone users considered their motivation for using a mobile device at a certain time. In an effort to solve the issue, if people use cell phone in a public settings, it would be wise of them to consider whether or not it would be better to wait to use the cell phone when the setting is more private. Hopefully, some restraint from using cell phones or laptops will encourage the use of “old-fashioned” conversation in public settings.

Works Cited

George Nitzburg, et al. “Children, Technology, Problems, And Preferences.” Journal Of
Clinical Psychology 68.11 (2012): 1225-1229. Academic Search Complete. Web.
3 Oct. 2013.

Hudson, Heather K., Kadi R. Bliss, and Joyce V. Fetro. “Effects Of Text Messaging On
College Students’ Perceptions Of Personal Health.” Health Educator 44.1 (2012):
28-35. Education Research Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Joanne Davila, et al. “Another Venue For Problematic Interpersonal Behavior: The
Effects Of Depressive And Anxious Symptoms On Social Networking
Experiences.” Journal Of Social & Clinical Psychology 31.4 (2012): 356-382.
Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Tannen, Deborah, and Anna Marie Trester, eds. Discourse 2.0 Language and New Media.
Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013. Print. 109, 111.

Tolman, Elizabeth. “Instructors’ Corner: Communication Competence And Cell Phone
Use.” Communication Currents 6.6 (2011): 1-2. Communication & Mass Media
Complete. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.