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To Text or Not to Text: Even Young People Don't Know the Answer


To Text or Not to Text: Even Young People
Don’t Know the Answer

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., says that modern communication options have complicated the lives of young people.

Photo by Michael Dames

“Young people consider telephone calls rude.

It’s rude and intrusive to call

people on the phone. The polite thing

to do is to text them.

By Joseph McLaughlin

Is rudeness in the eye of the beholder?

When it comes to the new media of texting, tweeting, e-mail and Facebook, the answer is yes, according to a renowned linguistics scholar who spoke at Fordham.

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., the bestselling author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (William Morrow and Co., 1990), lifted the veil on how young people use new media before an eager audience at McNally Amphitheatre on the Lincoln Center campus..

She began by asking whether emerging forms of interpersonal communication are separating people or bringing them closer—enhancing or suppressing relationships.

“Of course, the answer is that they’re doing both,” she said.

She pointed out the differences in generational attitudes toward the “social media,” as they have become known.

“The view of most of us who didn’t grow up with all of these new media is that texting is really not communication,” she said. “It’s really not like sitting down and talking to somebody.

“Actually, texting can be more intimate,” she said.

Once, after a lengthy phone conversation with her sister, Tannen received an e-mail from the same sister that mentioned something very important that she hadn’t mentioned on the phone.

“I asked her on e-mail why she hadn’t mentioned it on the phone and she replied, ‘The telephone is so impersonal,’” Tannen said.

“For her, writing e-mail is like writing in a diary. She’s alone with her thoughts. On the phone, she feels as if someone is bearing down on her.”

Likewise, young people take a different attitude toward the use of text messages than older generations do.

“My peers tend to view texting with alarm, disapproval and contempt,” she said. “If we’re talking to a kid and they start texting somebody, it’s uniformly clear to us that that’s rude.”

But when Tannen queried her students at Georgetown University about the appropriateness of texting, she was surprised at the responses.

“Young people consider telephone calls rude. It’s rude and intrusive to call people on the phone,” she said. “The polite thing to do is to text them.

“If it’s really necessary to have a conversation, you would text them to set up a time to talk because then you would know that the time you’re setting is convenient for them.”

She reported that one of her students was astonished that texting would be considered rude because it typically takes so little time.

To relate that sentiment for her Fordham audience, Tannen likened it to interrupting a store clerk who was busy with another customer for the purpose of asking a quick question, like directions to the restroom.

“You haven’t interrupted, from my point of view,” she explained.

While the generational interpretations of texting, e-mail and Facebook may vary, it is clear to Tannen that the variety of modern communication options makes young people’s lives much more complex than they used to be.

“The choice you make of what medium you’re going to use is the major meta-message in your communication,” she said. “It tells people what to think about what you’re saying—what to think about the fact that you’re communicating. It makes these kids’ lives much more complicated than they would be without these media.”

Tannen then related some examples given to her by her college students that illustrated the complexity in choosing a medium for communication.

A female student took a liking to another student at a social gathering. She became disappointed, however, when he only asked for her PIN—the code that would enable him to text her. She thought that said something about his interest in her: not enough to want her phone number, only enough to be able to text with her.

When a male student was in junior high school, he developed a “texting relationship” with a girl in his class that became very intimate. When they agreed to go to the movies together with a group of friends, they found they had nothing to say to each other. Afterward, she broke up with him via an e-mail message.

“He was especially hurt that she did it by e-mail, because to young people, e-mail is formal,” Tannen explained. “She was moving on to this very formalway of communicating when they had been so close on IM. He found it insulting that she would do that.”

Tannen delivered the 58th annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture as part of “New Languages, New Relations, New Realities,” a symposium from Oct. 29 to 31 sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics and co-sponsored by Fordham.


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