Thursday, February 16, 2012

Think Before Texting


As technology advances, people have to figure out the new rules for using it. In movie theatres, restaurants, and public places, it can be annoying and rude to have people loudly talking away on cell phones about trivia, or other personal things. We are having to adjust to a new level of awareness about how and where to have conversations and send text messages. We each need to think through how our behaviors impact our relationships and even the strangers around us. Just because we can be reached at any moment doesn't mean it's a good idea. We need to set some limits. We need to know when to turn the technology off, and be what I call "fully available now."
This week, I have had people share their hurt about having to ask their parent, child, or partner to put away their phone during a meal and be present. This is not an advance for our society. How do we sort through the useful purposes of texting, for example, but limit the damage being done using it?
When is texting helpful as a means of communicating? It's a great parenting resource for staying in touch with your teen or tween when they are out doing something with friends, or a beginning driver. They can text you when they leave, and when they arrive. You can ask them to keep their phone on so that you can reach them if needed. You can ask them to text you if they want to change locations, say from one friend's house to another's.
Text messaging can be a useful way to send a brief fact, for example, the time of a meeting, or the fact that you will be 5 minutes late. Many of my teen and busy adult patients find it easier and more convenient to text or e-mail me to set up appointments. Sending a text could be a sweet way to stay positively connected to another person, as in wishing them well on a speech, presentation, big meeting, or test. It could be a loving text that lets your partner or child know you are thinking of them, or love them. Consider whether a live phone call could be even better at times.
When is texting a bad idea? Having a fight or disagreement by text is a horrible idea. This mode of disagreeing is filled with pitfalls. The other person won't be able to tell your tone. They can't read your facial expressions or body language. Ninety percent of what we pick up from another person comes through tone of voice, body and facial expression. Only ten percent of our information about a message is gotten from the content of what someone communicates to you. Plus, do you really want someone you care about to have a lasting written record of something you typed quickly in anger without thinking it through? This can be very hurtful, and a little like using a submachine gun when a much smaller weapon will do. Save disagreements for face-to face discussion, where you will get the nuances, have fewer potential misfirings in your communication, and be able to repair things. Something about the speed and ease of firing off an angry text message frees people to get meaner than they ever would in person. Once written and sent, you can't take it back.
There are also some kinds of bad news that should never be communicated by text message. More care and humanity is needed than is possible in a text message if you are breaking off a relationship, ending a friendship, firing someone, or delivering news about a death, illness, or other serious topic. Text messages work better for brief facts, sharing encouragement or a quick text of connection. No bombshells, please. You don't know when and where the other person will be when they get a bad news text, so try never to send one. It's not the right vehicle.
When I teach couples safe ways to really work out disagreements, I ask them to argue or discuss things that matter by appointment with each other. Timing matters. If your partner asks you to have a difficult conversation, you can put away your phone, ipad, laptop, turn off the tv, and consciously decide to be"fully available now." It feels wonderful to be heard in this way, free of distractions.
Some years back, on a trip to New York city, I watched as a beautiful moment between a father and son got ruined by a cell phone. The father and small boy were in a little boat in the lake at Central Park, and the boy was fascinated by some baby ducklings and tried to engage his dad, who was completely focused on his cell phone call. Moment missed.
It seems to me that we need some no texting zones. Not just movie theatres, but at the dinner table, in the bedroom, on family outings, date nights, at church, plays, while driving, and more. Being intentionally present and not distracted is a gift we can give ourselves and those we care about. We can teach our children and teens about these new gray areas of communication, and engage them in the dialogue about what kind of commmunication medium is best for what. (For example, don't ask your best girl to prom or break up with your boyfriend by text.)
Do we need new rules for texting? I think so. Texting can be another resource for parenting, connecting, or scheduling, or it can be a distracting, destructive force. The choice is ours!

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