Text versus talk

I fear this anecdote I’m about to tell you may be all too familiar. On a fairly regular basis, my wife and I are asked by one of our daughters, or their husbands, to drive a grandchild to school, to buy a jug of milk on the way home, or to borrow a tool or something. Most of these requests come to us on our phones, but they’re usually preceded by that characteristic “ping” in our pockets, signalling a text.

“Can you pick up the kids?” the request reads in a bubble on the screen.

Whether my answer is “Yes” or “No,” I generally grab the phone – often my land-line – and call to find out if everything is all right, if there’s an emergency or not. For me it’s instinctive. My reaction is and has always been that I can gather more information by listening to a voice face-to-face, than if I wait for the bubble with the three dots (illuminating in sequence like a Mustang car turn signal) to give me an answer.
My point is whether a fault of the technology or the nature of different generational attitudes, we in the First World at least have reached a communication divide. More and more these days, and there are statistics to prove this, people prefer text over talk, much less speaking face-to-face with anybody.

One study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that 37 per cent of Internet users, ages 12 to 17, prefer Skype, Googletalk or iChat, over actual verbal communication. The further irony is that soon both daughters will live close enough that I could shout down the block to get an answer faster than if we texted back and forth.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not slamming younger generations. Bless them. They’re often the ones who help me out of technological jams – turning on my Apple TV, clearing my computer of spam and downloading that all-important cell-phone app. My worry is trans-generational. It’s societal. Nobody cares to deal with things in conversation face-to-face anymore. And it’s not just the mundane stuff, like texting me to pick up milk.

In a recent exchange with my book publisher, l tried reaching someone, who couldn’t take the incoming phone call. OK. I get it. People are busy. But then I got an email suggesting that I could try phoning on Tuesday morning at 11:30. Right. So, my attempt to have an actual conversation yielded an electronic message, telling me I might be able to have phone communication at if I tried at this time on that day. I was tempted to jump in my car, drive to the office and demand a face-to-face meeting unannounced. I know, I know. Far too impulsive.

But you see, that’s the problem. How many of society’s blow-ups might be resolved, if instead of texting-to-arrange-to-email-to-maybe-voicemail, we simply met and worked it out? That’s why there are diplomats, United Nations General Assemblies and peace tables. One would hope that the initiative for a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has come from people actually talking to each other rather than just firing off incendiary Tweets on the Internet at each other every morning. To borrow from a 1960s bumper sticker: “Make conversation, not war,” I say.

They couldn’t speak the same language, but at least they were face-to-face.

Speaking of which, one of my dad’s wartime stories involved a unique – if a bit odd – way of communicating. As the Second World War ended, he and his medical unit in the U.S. Army were posted to a small corner Czechoslovakia to help restore order, rebuild infrastructure and deliver basic medical care to the inhabitants. As a lowly sergeant, my father billeted with a family named Krizek. They spoke no English. Dad spoke no Czech. So, to communicate at the breakfast table, for example, he used an English-German dictionary to ask for the milk for his coffee. The billeting family used a German-Czech dictionary to figure it out what he wanted and passed it across the table to him.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t have to tell them their house was on fire,” Dad used to joke.

In hindsight, I think I’d have resorted to charades or sign language to obtain the condiments I needed before my coffee got cold. But then that was 1945. And if you think my father’s story sounds ridiculous, I was reading a New York Daily News story recently about a teenager texting her mom from her bedroom in the same house. She wanted cinnamon rolls for breakfast.

“If you want to talk to me, come to the kitchen and see me!” her mother shouted up the stairs.

I’m with the mom. And the chances are, if her daughter did decide to join her mother in the kitchen, the conversation over the cinnamon rolls might spark some pretty helpful Q&A, such as, “How’s school going? How’s your self-esteem? How’s your life?” It’s amazing what a voice on the face in front of you can tell you that a digit poking a screen can’t.

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