In early 2009 Nielsen Mobile surveyed teenagers with cell phones. On average each sent and
received an astounding 2,272 text messages per month. The national School Boards
Association estimated that high and middle school students devoted an average of nine hours to
social networking each week. Add blogging, email IM, tweets and other digital time and you
can see what a crazy hurried communication system people experience today.
Nearly all of their communication tools involve the exchange of written words alone. At least
phones, cellular and otherwise, allow the transmission of tone of voice, pauses and the like. But
even these clues are absent in the text-dependent world. Users ...view middle of the document...
Within cultures, Hall assumed, people more or less "spoke" the
same silent language.
They may no longer, thanks to the avalanche of all-verbal communication. In Silicon Valley
itself, as the Los Angeles Times reported, some companies have installed the "topless"
meeting—in which not only laptops but iPhones and other tools are banned—to combat a new
problem: "continuous partial attention." With a device close by, attendees at workplace meetings
simply cannot keep their focus on the speaker. It's too easy to check email, stock quotes and
Facebook. While a quick log-on may seem, to the user, a harmless break others in the room
receive it as a silent dismissal. It announces: "I'm not interested." So the tools must now remain
at the door.
Older employees might well accept such a ban, but younger ones might not understand it.
Reading a text message in the middle of a conversation isn't a lapse to them—it's what you do. It
has, they assume, no nonverbal meaning to anyone else.
It does, of course, but how would they know it? We live in a culture where young people—
outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to
messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the "silent fluency" that
comes from face-to-face interaction. It is a skill that we all must learn, in actual social settings,
from people (often older) who are adept in the idiom. As text-centered messaging increases,
such occasions diminish. The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when
it comes to their capacity to "read" the behavior of others, they are all thumbs.
We might reasonably pose questions about silent-language acquisition in a digital environment.
Lots of folks grumble about the reserve, self-absorption and general uncommunicativeness of
Generation Y. The next time they face a twenty-something who doesn't look them in the eye,
who slouches and sighs for no apparent reason, who seems distracted and unaware of the rising
frustration of the other people in the room, and who turns aside to answer a text message with
glee and facility, they shouldn't think, "What a rude kid." Instead, they should show a little
compassion and, perhaps, seize on a teachable moment. "Ah," they might think instead, "another
texter who doesn't realize that he is communicating, right now, with every glance and
movement—and that we're reading him all too well."
Debating whether or not all these new advances in communication technology are good or bad
seems to be the hot topic. Walking down the street to classes, I see a lot of students with their
heads down looking at a phone screen with their fingers moving at a furious pace. We are
communicating all the time, and not in the sense that “one...