What We Have Here: A Failure To Communicate

Apr 26, 2012
Originally published on April 27, 2012 7:45 am

It is the weirdest thing. There are more ways than ever to communicate with people, yet it sometimes seems like it is more difficult to connect — and stay connected — with anyone.

Should you shoot off an email? Tap out a text? Post a private message on Facebook? Write on their Facebook wall? Skype, poke, ping or conjure them up on a digital tin can phone?

And once you reach someone, you wonder: Is he paying attention? How do you know? Even with the techno-ease of countless communication devices, conversations can still be troublesome. Questions are asked and answered out of order. Instructions and directions go half-read. Meetings are botched. Feelings are hurt.

Nowadays, you can reach out to touch someone and not even get close. Some folks don't check their phone messages. Some don't have answering machines on their home telephones. More and more people consider home phones, and land lines of any stripe, anachronistic.

So how do you get in touch with someone?

The first instinct, says Hannah Shatzen, a senior at the University of Virginia, "is to always text a person. If they don't answer, you can catch them on G-chat or Facebook chat. If they don't answer there, you can Facebook message them and see if they'll answer later. You also have the option to tweet at someone and tell them what you want to say. And if all else fails, you can call them."

Is it maddening to have to try so many ways? Not at all, Shatzen patiently explains. "There is never a time when I can't get in contact with someone. Everyone is constantly connected."

Cue the sound of a home telephone ringing and ringing and ringing ...

Multiple Avenues

A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveals that texting is the favorite form of communication among young people ages 12 to 17. Some 63 percent use texting to chat with others every day. About 39 percent call and receive calls on their cellphones; 29 percent swap messages on social network sites — such as Facebook and Twitter — and 22 percent send instant messages.

Only 19 percent talk on land lines every day and just 6 percent exchange emails.

There are so many options. And that energizes people like Debbie Weil.

"The beauty of social media is that it does in fact create multiple avenues to reach someone," says Weil, a techno-evangelist and founder of Voxie Media, a Washington-based publishing services company for business writers. "One usually knows the preferred message to reach a friend — email, text, phone. But if you're trying to reach a potential business contact — even someone 'famous' — you now have so many ways to do it."

For example, Weil says, she is able to contact once-unreachable famous people by posting comments on their blogs, by mentioning their names in posts on her own blog, by directing tweets their way, by posting Facebook comments, by looking people up on LinkedIn and through other methods. "This is a godsend as far as I'm concerned," she says.

Of course, celebrities can be finicky.

* Actor Johnny Depp doesn't use phones. "I just don't like them ... being reachable all the time," Depp tells Access Hollywood.

* Actor Jessie Eisenberg, who played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, admits on AOL that he doesn't use Facebook.

* And Isabelle Fuhrman, a star of The Hunger Games, prefers to not text. "I think the more communication we have, the more misunderstanding there is," the 15-year-old tells HollywoodChicago.com. "You can text someone with the best intentions and they'll ask why you're mad at them, when you're not. I don't like to text; I use it to make plans with people, but I prefer to call. You can hear the intonation in their voice and you can really connect to them. Skype and video chat is even better."

Asynchronicity

But many people are frustrated by the dizzying possibilities. And reaching someone is sometimes only the beginning of the problem.

Often with various digital communication devices, we feel connected with — and disconnected from — other people at the same time.

Sure. It happens in face-to-face encounters as well — in office meetings or boring classrooms, for example. But people who study interpersonal relations say that ever-evolving communication technology is changing the very nature of human interaction.

Joanne R. Gilbert, a professor of communication and new media studies at Alma College in Alma, Mich., says, "What I have seen in the last five or six years is an erosion in students' ability to focus, and even their ability to engage in face-to-face interaction. Students themselves notice this."

Just this semester, she says, "my communication majors discussed the fact that homework is much more of a challenge for them than it was a couple of years ago, because while doing homework, they are simultaneously texting, and sending and receiving messages on Facebook, while listening to music and looking at various websites. We discuss the illusion of multitasking and the enormous amount of recovery time it takes to focus on a single task."

Tamara Wandel, who teaches communication at the University of Evansville in Indiana, says Twitter-jitters are not confined to young people. "I know plenty of middle-aged men and women incapable of sitting with a friend for a coffee without tweeting that they're sitting with a friend for coffee," she says. "So in that way we are always in touch but in a more superficial way."

The blizzard of communication options also "introduces an interesting power dynamic, says Mary Stairs Vaughn, a professor of communication studies at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. "For example, I can gain the upper hand by not responding to a text right away or appear pathetic by constantly updating my Facebook status."

In everyday interaction, Vaughn says, "we constantly try to manage others' impressions of us. Asynchronous, text-based communication allows for much more selectivity in the presentation of self. For example, a texter can be purposefully evasive in flirting and back out if the flirting isn't reciprocated."

Before our very eyes, Vaughn says, the realms of interpersonal communication and mass communication are converging. People today have the opportunity to "brand" themselves via Facebook status updates and tweets, Vaughn says, "so now instead of talking to each other, they're more likely to read about each other."

As Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, writes in a recent New York Times essay: "We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship."

Tha Medium Iz Tha Msg

Technology has its own demands, however.

Kate Kamber, a student at the University of Virginia who is Shatzen's roommate, describes the dilemma pretty well. "If you have a crush on a boy, should you text him/call him/tweet him/Facebook chat/message/G-chat/tag him in a photo?" she asks. "There are so many more mediums for communication than there used to be."

She remembers fondly only a few years ago being able to easily reach her fourth-grade boyfriend on his family's land line.

Invoking Marshall McLuhan's famous quote, "The medium is the message," Kamber says that in contemporary American culture, "the problem is not how to best contact someone for the sake of contact, but rather the problem is how to contact someone in a medium where the intended message can most accurately be conveyed."

Symptomatic of the age we live in, technology offers hopeful solutions to problems caused by the very same technology. BlackBerrys, iPhones and other supersmart devices are constantly being updated to knit many of our disparate communication methods into one easy-to-use gizmo or application — not so much a killer app as a healer app.

But there are always other techno-advancements lurking in the wings. At MIT's Media Lab, for instance, researchers are developing communication devices for the living room that focus on "remote co-presence," allowing us to laugh and chat and "be together" regardless of where we are.

And that, of course, is the ultimate challenge of all human interaction — mediated or not. To be successful and meaningful, it should draw us all closer together, not drive us farther apart.

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