CHICAGO – Anna Schiferl hadn’t even rolled out of bed when she reached for her cellphone and typed a text to her mom, one recent Saturday. Mom was right downstairs in the kitchen. The text? Anna wanted cinnamon rolls for breakfast.
Soon after, the 13-year-old could hear mom’s voice echoing through the house.
“Anna,” Joanna Schiferl called, “if you want to talk to me, you come downstairs and see me!”
Anna laughs about it now. “I was kind of being lazy,” the teen from suburban Chicago concedes. “I know that sounds horrible.”
Well, maybe not horrible, but certainly increasingly typical.
Statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that, these days, many people with cellphones prefer texting over a phone call. It’s not always young people, though the data indicate that the younger you are, the more likely you are to prefer texting.
And that’s creating a communication divide, of sorts – the talkers vs. the texters.
Some would argue that it’s no big deal. What difference should it make how we communicate, as long as we do so?
But many experts say the most successful communicators will, of course, have the ability to do both, talk or text, and know the most appropriate times to use those skills. And they fear that more of us are losing our ability to have – or at least are avoiding – the traditional face-to-face conversations that are vital in the workplace and personal relationships.
“It is an art that’s becoming as valuable as good writing,” says Janet Sternberg, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York who is also a linguist.
In the most extreme cases, she’s noticed that more students don’t look her in the eye and have trouble with the basics of direct conversation – habits that, she says, will not serve them well as they enter a world where many of their elders still expect an in-person conversation, or at the very least a phone call.
On today’s college campuses, the dynamic is often different. Forget about things like “office hours,” for instance. Many professors say they rarely see students outside of class.
“I sit in my office hours lonely now because if students have a question, they email, often late at night,” says Renee Houston, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.
“And they never call, ever.”
She recalls overhearing students chuckling about the way people older than them communicate.
“My parents left me a voicemail. Can you believe it?” one said, as if voicemail had gone the way of the dinosaurs.
This doesn’t sound surprising or particularly troublesome to Lisa Auster-Gussman, who’ll be a senior this fall at the University of Richmond in Virginia. For her, there are simply particular tools she uses to communicate, depending on the recipient.
Email is for professors, yes. Phone calls and maybe the occasional text are for parents, if the parents know how to do the latter.
“But I don’t communicate much with older people. So much of my life is set up over text,” says Auster-Gussman, who sends and receives an average of about 6,000 text messages a month.
Many are done as “group texts,” sharing messages among eight college friends who live in the same building.
The interactions are nothing more than you’d say in a casual conversation, Auster-Gussman says – but they are constant when they’re not together.
Recently, for instance, she went to a movie and came out to find 50 text messages waiting for her on her phone.
Meanwhile, last summer, when she was away from her boyfriend, she went days without talking to him on the phone, but texted with him several times a day.
“You’re not even really talking to him,” she remembers her perplexed father saying.
“But I felt like I was talking to him all day, every day,” Auster-Gussman says.
Is there some aversion to talking on the phone? Not really, she says. It’s just a preference. In this day and age, it’s just what you do.
As Anna, the 13-year-old in suburban Chicago, sees it: “There are people you’ll text, but won’t call. It’s just awkward that way.
“It’s not about anything important – just a way to stay in touch with each other.”