We don’t talk any more
My friend hates instant messaging. I know this because he sends me instant messages about it. His main problem is that messaging, whether through SMS, facebook or whatsapp, is distracting, causes misunderstandings, and is a poor substitute for a quick old-fashioned phone call. Whether my particularly cantankerous and contradictory friend is right or not, the way we communicate is certainly changing very rapidly indeed, in interesting and challenging ways. In the last fifteen years alone we have shifted from phone calls to SMS and then to so-called Over the Top (OTT) messengers like whatsapp at such speed that it’s hard to notice the social and psychological effects, let alone predict what might happen next.
I recently finished reading the excellent ‘Happiness by Design’ by behavioural scientist Paul Dolan. Dolan, along with countless other psychologists, reminds us that time spent with friends is one of the single best predictors for happiness. Unfortunately, we cannot always be physically close to people we like due to work, family and the complexities of Life, but for over a hundred years now we have had a wonderful invention called the telephone. Dolan encourages us to use it. Yet, increasingly, we don’t. Phone calls are in decline in the USA and in the UK, where time spent making phone calls dropped by 5% between 2010 and 2011 – this was the first year that phone calls went down since mobile phones became ubiquitous back in the 1990s. At the same time in 2011, text-based messages took over as the most popular form of daily communication.
In his book, Dolan recalls something a taxi driver once said to him:
“He asked me to imagine that voice calls were invented after text messages. “Do you really think,” he said, “that anyone would be sending texts? Of course they bloody wouldn’t – they would be bloody marvelling at their ability to actually have a conversation.” I think he is bloody right.”
(Dolan, 2014, 167)
So do I. It’s strange that we are neglecting what is a pretty amazing invention. And I think that as we use the phone less and less for calls, so some of us at least, are prone to what you might call ‘phone anxiety’. Hearing our phone ring might make us sigh with apprehension that we are going to actually have to put on our ‘phone-voice’, feign enthusiasm, and pause our game of CandyCrush. I have a couple of friends who do this – audible sigh included – no matter if the caller is their girlfriend, the bank, their mother or their best mate. Yet in between calls they will happily play on their phone, sending and receiving messages.
It can also work the other way. Sometimes I want to speak to a friend but I worry that my call might ‘disturb’ them, and so I will message them first to make sure it’s ok to call. What the hell am I doing?! Whatever happened to just calling a friend??!! I never had this problem when I was a teenager. I’m sure there are plenty of phone-savvy chatterboxes who have no qualms whatsoever with just picking up the phone, but I sometimes get the feeling that the more we text, the less confident we are to talk. It’s easy to say that in a Hectic Modern World we are “too busy” to talk, and perhaps some of us are, but I also think that “too busy’ can be a convenient proxy for “too lazy”.
This isn’t just a nostalgic whinge about the demise of the beloved phone-call. There may be psychological problems associated with this shift towards text-based communication, away from face-to-face time and phone-time. Is it just coincidence that reported ‘loneliness’ is rising, especially among young adults, at a time when we have supposedly never been more ‘connected’?
Problems may be coming down the line from a developmental point of view as well. Recent figures from Ofcom suggest british children aged 12-15 hardly use the phone at all. Only 3% of their communications time is spent making voice calls, while the vast majority (94%) is text based. For Ofcom, this shows that the next generation are becoming more ‘tech-savvy’, but others are concerned about the implications. Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has conducted research into how text-messaging might interfere with children’s development as communicators. For most adults, our ability to converse was established before the rise of text-based messaging, and whilst we might try to avoid phone conversations, that’s mainly down to being lazy (sorry, being “busy”). But for kids who haven’t developed conservation skills yet, their reliance on messaging might create a real phobia of talking. “I talk to kids and they describe their fear of conversation,” says Turkle. “An 18-year-old I interviewed recently said, ‘Someday, but certainly not now, I want to learn to have a conversation.’”
One of the many strange effects of the internet is that it has simultaneously made people more ‘vocal’ using text-based communication – whether it be writing blogs, trolling on comments boards, commenting on facebook, tweeting or messaging – whilst it might actually be making people, especially younger people, less ‘vocal’ when it comes to actually using their, y’know, voice.
Dolan, P. (2014) Happiness By Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life. London: Allen Lane.