The Etiquette of Texting in the Age of Electronic Loneliness

Yesterday I was being driven in a taxi from one part of Seattle to another. The taxi driver was a Muslim man who spent the entire twenty-six minutes talking in frenetic Arabic to someone on his cell phone. I don't know if they were making dinner plans or plotting revenge. All I know is that they were talking with great animation, and I didn't understand a single word my driver said. He was driving so fast that I was a little uneasy. Nor did it make my ride very pleasant to have to listen to what seemed like high-energy chatter, but I'm sure being able to multi-task in this way makes his work life less tedious and perhaps more productive. We drove through the fashionable Capitol Hill district of Seattle. On our right we passed a young man on a bicycle riding no hands and texting as he glided through traffic. That was the most creative (and dangerous) instance of texting I have seen so far. I suppose the ultimate would be to text while riding a bull in a rodeo. People must really want to text to take such risks.

What did we do before we could text Homo sapiens have been around for 250,000 years, and somehow we got by without texting until ten years ago. Now, approximately six billion texts are sent per day in the United States alone. Young Americans (18-29) send or receive on average 88 texts per day. The other night I sat at a long bar in a Seattle hotel and all eleven people sitting there were texting alone, concentrating even more on their cell phones than on their drinks. Not a single conversation of any sort was occurring between those eleven bodies. The bartender was texting, too. I was not texting, but I was reading a book on my iPad.

The Internet gave us the capacity to send emails at some point between 1995 and the millennium. The electronic letter phased out the paper-and-postage-stamp letter with breathtaking ruthlessness. I still send traditional letters to my daughter, and occasionally to others. She regards such letters as quaint relics of a forgotten age. She senses that a letter in the mailbox is somehow more significant than an email, but I can tell that she thinks it is a bit silly to deploy the resources of the US Postal System for six or seven days to deliver to her essentially the same words that I could have sent her instantaneously from anywhere on earth. The postal service is a reasonably efficient document delivery system now being displaced by a stunningly more efficient delivery system. I imagine when she receives a letter from me, it feels to her like that birthday card you used to get from your grandmother with a $5 check in it. You shake your head a little, even though you do appreciate the gesture.

I spend a lot of time in airports. Computers, cell phones, and texting have taken a lot of the tedium out of waiting for the next flight. It certainly beats that earlier phase of electronic culture when people carried little game devices around and played them in seat 23b with all their bells and dings and whistles blaring, as if they had a full grown pinball machine in front of them. What bothers me most now are the people who stop dead in their tracks in airport walking lanes, without warning, and when you lurch and scramble to avoid running them down, you discover they merely stopped to tap out a text. Hey Brad, 'sup This happens to me every time I fly now.

Texting is so addictive that once you are in there is no turning back. My mother is a great case in point. Sometime around 1998 I forced her to buy her first home computer. She resisted that rite of passage as if I were trying to put her in a rural nursing home. I'm too old, what would I do with it, I'd never be able to figure it out, I've lived my whole life without a computer, why would I need one now But of course the minute she had her first massive Gateway computer she recognized it as an essential tool of life. We went through the same nonsense about her first cell phone, her first laptop, and her first Nook. She relented in the end in the Battle of the Cell Phone by admitting that it might possibly save her life if she ran off the road in a blizzard. And for several years she used it only when she traveled. More recently we had a daylong argument about getting her a cell phone on which she could write texts. My fingers would be too clumsy on such a small keyboard, why cannot I just pick up the phone and call if I have something to say, I'm eighty years old for the gosh sakes, etc. This summer my amazingly persuasive daughter convinced my mother to buy her first iPhone, even though she had sworn earlier in the week that nothing could ever convince her to abandon a true keyboard for a touch pad. Now she nonchalantly exchanges texts with her granddaughter and with her significant other in Minneapolis, and a few days ago she somehow managed to send me a photograph from Cody, Wyoming. She has a fancy stylus for her phone. I'll look over at her and ask what she's doing Oh, just texting Russ (the S.O.) to see if he thinks Tiger or Phil will win the tournament. Oh my. As Hamlet put it, Is man no more than this?

One of the positive benefits of texting is that it makes us get to the point. It's the modern telegraph system. Nobody likes to tap out a 500-word note. I think it also invites us to be witty. A perfect text is worth a thousand words. It is certainly easier to text in one's regrets for not coming to a dinner party than making that call, which might end in the host persuading you to come, after all, or might leave you feeling like a lout. You can text what you dare not or would rather not say, and you can text at any time of day or night without necessarily disturbing the recipient.

Texting allows us to reach out to someone in a small way, without the duration and heavier implications of a phone conversation. Hey, thinking about you. Just wanted to make sure you are ok Don't forget to make the car payment. Have I said I love you yet today Texting is ideal for some types of communication. Think of how long that car payment phone call might have lasted and what Pandora's boxes it might have opened. The telegraph works better.

I have even heard of instances of people breaking up with their lovers by text—the rare Dear John text. Hard to believe anyone could ever be so barbarous and insensitive, but such things are a fair indicator of where we are and where we are headed as a culture.

C U next wk.