More Talk, Less Text

This was published in the June 20, 2013 issue of the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange.

Occasionally I find myself walking through Maplewood Village or Memorial Park shortly after school has ended, encountering gaggles of adolescents clogging the sidewalks or seated in clusters on the benches and fields. After spending six hours in classrooms, where their ability to communicate is highly regulated, they are finally emancipated and able to express themselves freely and openly. So there they are, engaged in lively debates, passionate arguments and animated conversations — but often not with each other.

Instead, each has a smartphone drawn and is rapidly texting, thumbs flying in a rapid staccato over letters and emoticons. Through some strange cultural shift, the preferred mode of communication in our society has increasingly become the text message, not just among teens, but for many adults as well. While I appreciate that I can now text my daughter to let her know that I’m on the carpool line at school and my husband can send a text letting me know when he’ll be home from work, I believe there is an argument to be made that the majority of what we are texting should be returned to the spoken word.

Texting has changed the way we process our emotional lives. Psychotherapists report that it has become common for individuals struggling in their relationships to produce cell phones during a session and begin reading from lengthy records of text-messaged conversations — the incontrovertible evidence of their mistreatment. During couple’s therapy, clients will often recite aloud texted arguments scrolling across tiny LED screens, a record of their mutual hostility forever stored in cyberspace. Once the acrimonious feelings behind the text messages are expressed and defused, the anger may abate, but many find it difficult to delete the hurtful words, instead storing them both literally and figuratively in their front pockets for future use.

The question of whether partners should be allowed access to each other’s cell phones has become widely debated among couples. When one partner maintains, “my phone is private and none of your business,” the other is often left pondering distressing questions: Is he hiding something? Is she bad-mouthing me to her friends? Whom does he keep texting? Why won’t she let me see her phone?

Today we often express feelings via text without anticipating the ramifications of the message’s permanence or recognizing the potential for misinterpretation. While there was once a lot of “he said, she said,” and the salving effect of fading memories to help us move toward forgiveness, the cell phone leaves no room for memory loss, and simultaneously eliminates the nuance of intonation and facial expression. I’m sorry, but “LOL” or a smiling emoticon does not transmit the same multilayered message as that conveyed by the curl of his lip, the sadness in his eyes or the hesitation in her voice.

Feelings are often shared in text messages without sufficient thought, without filter and without reflection. Texting makes it too easy to respond impulsively, and quite difficult to recant caustic words later. Thumbs fly over the phone and people are hurt, sometimes unintentionally, as we keep texting even when we’ve consumed more alcohol than we intended, are too tired to think clearly, or are under tremendous stress.

Here are a few lessons I have learned about texting that may be worth keeping in mind:
• Never text anything that you’d be embarrassed to have your family and friends read. There is no privacy once it reaches cyberspace.
• If you are in a committed relationship, there should be nothing on your phone that is off-limits to your partner. Privacy should be respected, but secrecy leads to mistrust; part of our commitment should include helping our partner feel secure.
• If you are angry: speak, don’t text. You will be able to share your emotions more thoughtfully and fine tune your words more effectively based on a greater breadth of information. If the other person apologizes, it will be much more satisfying to hear the words directly; if you need to offer an apology, it will carry more weight if delivered in person.

One final guideline that may sum up the rest: If you want to share a shopping list, send a text. If you want to share your life, use your voice.