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Is Text Messaging Ruining the Art of Conversation?

June 4, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

CHICAGO (AP) - Anna Schiferl hadn't even rolled out of bed when she reached for her cell phone 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!"

Article Photos

AP Photo
Anna Schiferl sits with her mother, Joanna, holding their cell phones in the living room of their LaGrange, Ill., home. Statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project show many people with cell phones prefer texting over a making actual phone calls with their devices.

Anna Schiferl 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 cell phones 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.

As Anna Schiferl , 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."

She and her closest friends also send each other videos of themselves and their surroundings - maybe of their dogs or something new in their bedroom. "People would probably say, like, 'Why don't you just call them?'" Schiferl says.

Experts say there is, of course, nothing wrong with casual conversation and fun between friends. One could argue that the constant banter - scores of texts each day - keep people more connected. The problem, some communication experts say, is that the conversation isn't particularly deep - and therein lies the problem, says Joseph Grenny, co-author of the book "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High."

"The core problem has existed since we've had telephones - probably since the time of a telegraph," Grenny says. "We loathe having crucial conversations. We are paralyzed and do what we can to avoid them."

That applies to any generation, he says. Texting is just the latest way to do that.

Although they may not always be so good at deep conversations themselves, Grenny suggests that parents model the behavior for their children and put down their own mobile devices. He says they also should set limits, as Anna's mom did when she enforced the "no texting to people under the same roof" rule.

A recent Pew survey found that online video chat is catching on with teens, especially girls. The survey found that 37 percent of Internet users, ages 12 to 17, reported using such applications as Skype, Googletalk or iChat.

Of course, other forms of social networking are still enticing, as Schiferl's mom discovered one recent evening when she noticed that her daughter was on Facebook when she was supposed to be doing homework.

What did mom do? She broke her own rule.

"I texted her from downstairs," mom says, chuckling, "just to bust her."

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