Have you ever sent a text message to tell your boss you’re sick, to break up with someone, or deliver hard news? If not, you might soon be in the minority. For better or for worse, texting is taking over the bulk of how we communicate, and it’s beginning to impact our relationships.
In the span of just 10 years, people have gone from relying on voice-based communication, including phone calls and in-person conversations, to conducting most of their communication through text-based methods such as text messages, emails, or social media.
In daily life, about 64% of teens in 2005 used phone calls as their main way of communicating with other people, and only about 5% used texting as their predominant means of talking with one another. Overall, many adults in the United States text more than three hours per day, according to research conducted by Rune Vejby and the Gravitate Research Group. Vejby recently released a book called Texting in Sick: How Smartphones, Texting, and Social Media Are Changing Our Relationships that covers the changes in communication, focusing on the ways texting has changed the way we communicate.
“In very broad strokes, texting has made communication ‘unrisky,'” Vejby said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. In many cases, that allows people to make faster, easier connections with people and give a solid foundation to any sort of relationship. It also helps families, significant others, and friends stay in closer contact with one another.
But there are some significant downsides as well, Vejby has observed during his work as a cultural analyst for the Gravitate Research Group. When you take the risk out of personal connections such as face-to-face contact, “you are building a very unhealthy communication context where misunderstandings frequently occur and conversation partners get no gratification from the interaction,” Vejby said.
After conducting surveys of more than 4,000 people between the ages of 18 and 34, Vejby said he believes the increase in texting comes from a variety of factors, including changes in technology and psychological aspects. Here’s a few ways texting reshaped how we communicate.
1. It’s a way to maintain the status quo
The rise of texting isn’t all bad, Vejby said, especially since it allows us to easily stay in contact with family members, neighbors, and friends. “For anything related to relationship maintenance, texting is gold,” he said. It’s also helpful for building stronger connections if you’re more naturally shy, and it’s a great way to reinforce positive connections, Vejby explained. But when you’re relying on text messages as the sole basis of a relationship, it will be much harder to grow or continue a meaningful connection.
2. It’s a solution for anxiety and fast-paced lifestyles
There’s a growing number of studies that point out that younger people, specifically in the millennial generation, are experiencing more anxiety than older generations have. Couple that with the fast-paced nature of most business today, and people are looking for a quick, easy, painless way to communicate.
“We care more about the result than the process of getting there. Texting is the perfect technological means for putting this mentality into communicative practice. It’s short, it gets to the point immediately, and you don’t have to ‘deal with’ people face-to-face,” Vejby explained.
3. Interpersonal skills drop
Chances are, your mother probably banned cell phones at the dinner table a long time ago. They’re terrible for in-person communication, and those habits have begun to carry over into life, Vejby found. In cases where we need to show empathy, demonstrate good listening skills, and adapt to the person we’re talking with, texting creates a barrier. Using text messages instead of sitting down with someone to have a hard conversation, or deliver bad news, can become a crutch in those instances.
4. It gives you an easy way out
Just as texting your girlfriend about a fight helps you evade a 30-minute conversation you’d rather avoid, the messaging gives you an easy way out for just about everything. Though a small percentage of bosses find it acceptable, 51% of young Americans surveyed have used text-based mediums like messaging, email, or social media to report in sick rather than calling their boss to say they won’t be in. You don’t need to have a conversation, and it eliminates any back and forth you might have.
In the same way, many millennials report texting has a crucial role in their romantic relationships. About 64% have argued with their significant other via text, and 39% of respondents ended a relationship with a message, not a call or in-person breakup. Another 55% would consider breaking up with someone with a text. “When it comes to breaking up a relationship, many of the young people I interviewed chose to send a text because that would make the conversation a lot less messy. There would be no eye contact, no tone of voice, no feeling awkward,” Vejby said.
Of course, most people realize that ending a relationship with a text is in bad form, if not downright awful. But it doesn’t stop people from using texts or emails to deal with the messiness of human relationships.
“Texting is seductive because it’s so easy and requires almost no emotional involvement in the conversation. Tough conversations such as breaking up with a partner or giving someone bad news can be done and over with at the click of a button. We have a natural inclination towards evading anxiety. Texting provides the technical means for achieving just that,” Vejby said.
Still, those same people who are using texting as a crutch, or as a personal assistant to do all their dirty work, are realizing that texting isn’t a good substitute. Though Vejby points out many people struggle with finding a balance of how to use texting, he believes we’re reaching a “saturation point” with apps and text-based services that will eventually simmer down. When that happens, we might actually pick up the phone to make a call, not send an emoji.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS