September 10, 2013

Communicating the old fashioned way

Non-participant Stephanie Taylor checks her phone in class during an open dialogue about how not being able to text can change your communication style.

Non-participant Stephanie Taylor checks her phone in class during an open dialogue about how not being able to text can change your communication style. The students were doing an experiment in their anthropology class to see if they could go a week without texting or using their cell phones for anything except making phone calls as if they were a land line. The old fashioned way. (Courtesy Photo)

By Barbara Baker

In a society where many of today’s 18 year olds were literally teething on a cell phone, punching out a message on a mini keyboard is just second nature. Studies show that most teenagers will text an average of 60 times per day. Northeastern Junior College Sociology Professor Jeff Schiel, who also teaches Anthropology classes, decided to challenge his students to stop texting. He asked a Cultural Anthropology class of 18 to voluntarily commit to use their cell phones as if they were only an old-fashioned land line for one full week, and to live to tell about it.

The students were asked, on an honorary and voluntary basis, to give up any use of their hand held device other than to make a phone call where they would speak voice to voice, person to person for one full week. They had to promise not to text, to stay away from the games and other apps they frequent every day, including the built-in phone calculator.  Could they do it?

The social experiment was designed to help the students see how much interpersonal communication has changed; how face to face talk time has evolved into a thumb driven technological whirlwind that consumes many of us day after day. Sixteen students in the class signed up, made the pledge and started the exercise. Two flat declined, saying that they knew they could not, and would not do it, for various reasons. Within two days, six of the 16 had dropped out of the exercise. They’d somehow been sucked back into their old routine, unable to withstand the temptation. For the remaining 10, who still had two more days to go with the experiment, some spoke of finding a new freedom while others talked of a new anxiety because they’d lost the ability to plan what they were going to ‘say’…in a text.

At the start of the experiment, Schiel explained the process and then gave the students five minutes in class to mass-text all the contacts in their phone and tell them that they were beginning this social experiment and for the next seven days, they would only be able to talk to them on the phone, by voice. They told their contacts that they were not to receive or respond by text. Basically they said, “If you want to contact me for the next week, call me and speak to me on my phone.” 

During class on Monday of this week, five days into the exercise, Schiel opened the class with discussion about how the phone has evolved. A few older students in the class shared how as children, they lived in homes with party lines, or in a community where their phone number was only four digits and easy to remember. Schiel said he remembers, to this day, the phone number he was to call to reach his mother at work, when he was in kindergarten.  One 20-year old student spoke of her hardship as a teen because she and her siblings shared a phone. “I didn’t have my own phone and it was bad,” she said, chuckling. Today, it is rare when a student doesn’t have their own digital dynamo in their pocket.

Students spoke candidly about how the “no text” rule was helped or hindered their lives. “This has impeded my ability to socialize,” said David Cordova, a music major from Denver. “In a way it is stopping my ability to have a relationship,” he says, laughing. “It has impaired how I communicate, but I’ve also realized that I use it as a crutch.” Other students chimed in and agreed it is  much more difficult to have the phone actually ringing, knowing that if and when they answer it, there is going to be someone on the other end wanting something. “The pressure of a phone call instead of a text forces us to act when we might not otherwise act,” said one student.

Tyler Floro, who did participate in the experiment,  raises his hand when asked if anyone is seeing activity on their phone at that very moment.

Tyler Floro, who did participate in the experiment, raises his hand when asked if anyone is seeing activity on their phone at that very moment. He’s receiving a phone call in class. He didn’t answer it. (Courtesy Photo)

“When you’re texting, you can have a little time to react if you need it,” says Stephanie Taylor  who chose not to participate in the experiment. “Texting is like a letter. You can enter a message in your phone and then choose to send it right then, or choose to wait and send it later, you can edit it, or you can erase it altogether. You can’t do that when someone is on the other end of the line wanting your response.”  Others in the group point out that in texting, you might also respond rapidly and say something you would never say to someone face to face. Texting, they agree, where what you communicate is documented, is much more liable. Taylor  admits that part of her reluctance to participate was because her boyfriend chooses to communicate almost exclusively by text. “I can win an argument with a text better than I can with a call,” she tells her fellow students as many of them look at her, amazed that she thinks this.  “When you’re actually talking to a person, there’s a lack of ability to plan what I’m going to say. With texting, I can do this.”  One student shared with the group that her mother has been ecstatic about this experiment because the two of them have had to talk in person. “She calls me and talks and talks and talks! When we text, I can control how much time I spend with her on the phone but right now I can’t get her to stop!” she said, as others laughed.

Some students admitted the spontaneity of a phone call can create panic, and it takes some mental fortitude to realize that you don’t have to have an answer for whatever is being asked of you right then and there. You can,  after all,  call someone back.

Students discussed how technology has shaped how they communicate. Having instant and constantly changing information at your fingertips is both good and bad. “Because of these phones, we don’t know how to ‘filter’ what is really specifically for us and in a sense, it makes it hard for us to choose who we are,” Cordova says, asking others if that makes any sense to them. This dialogue moved to talk about the “hamster wheel” effect of non-stop information clutter that keeps us all running all of the time and there is no button available to turn it off. If you’re not getting it on your phone, you’re getting it somewhere else.

There were students who liked removing the pressure of the cell phone. “I felt a sense of freedom,” says Chelsea Kappius,  “I am no longer staring at my phone because I know nothing is happening.”  Another older adult student said that she has never liked texting. “It takes me 10 texts to get what I can get out of one phone call.”   Actually talking to someone who is hearing you on the other end of the line is much more genuine, the students decided.

“On Facebook, you might type in to someone that their baby is really cute, when actually, you’re thinking something else,” Schiel points out, bringing laughter from his students. The ability to flirt and drop innuendos to the opposite sex disappears when texting goes away. Students admit that they certainly would not say on the phone what they are brave enough to text to someone regarding secret desires.  So much for liability.  There’s that filter thing, or lack of it, again. 

Some addicted Textsters in the class talked about starting to experience the documented medical disorder of “Phantom Vibration” which happens when you think that your phone in your pocket is vibrating when it actually isn’t.  A few students said that the exercise really hasn’t affected them because they didn’t use their phone all that much to start with. During the 20 minute classroom dialogue,  two students, both experiment drop outs, were actively seen texting on their phones.  When asked how many had activity happening on their phone right at that moment, one student said, with his hand in the air and his smart phone lit up on his desk, “I’m getting a phone call right now.” He chose not to answer it during class.

Schiel said he has a sociology class also doing this same experiment. At the end of the week, he said he will end the experience like he started it. “I will give them  five minutes in class to text like crazy, we’ll call it an epic text session.”