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Op-ed column

Texting disrupts our conversation, but we are still figuring out the new rules

Sunday, March 31, 2013
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Op-ed column


As I watch people text in public — head down, earplugs in, oblivious but still shuffling forward a la “The Walking Dead” — I can’t help but wonder when we’ll see a news story about one of them strolling into traffic and being run over.

How did we get so hooked? Texting is one of those habits that came so quickly to our society that everything from schools to hospitals to state capitals — institutions that say things in full sentences and without emoticons — are scrambling to impose rules of the road, literally and figuratively.

Americans send more than 2 trillion texts a year. And all this started only in the early 2000s. By 2007, texts had surpassed the number of phone calls people made in a day. If you spend time with anyone under 40, these statistics do not come as a surprise.

Creating and etiquette

Like many aspects of technology, we haven’t quite figured out the etiquette of texting. We text while people are speaking to us. We text in classrooms. I have seen people text in churches and synagogues (Sorry, Pastor Bill, I once sent my daughter a text from church), we text at meetings and, probably worst of all, we text when another person is sitting right across from us trying to engage in conversation.

In response to earlier columns on manners, people write to say they agree with me about thank-you notes, or RSVPs, or other aspects of acceptable behavior. And, invariably, they add, and what about how rude people are when it comes to texting?

I’ve had time to think about this, and to talk to others, and to watch texters in action. And I’ve come to this conclusion: It’s impolite to text when people are speaking to you. It’s rude to text during a class or at a meeting, and it’s a total disregard for the safety of others when you text while driving, biking or walking. In New York City, people have practically trampled my 85-year-old mother on the sidewalk because their faces are buried in their phones.

And our constant passion for texting may also not be the best thing for our relationships. Last year I sat in a lovely restaurant with my husband, and there was a 30-something couple at the table next to us. Throughout dinner, they sipped their wine and looked down at their phones and texted. They didn’t exchange a word with each other.

Emotional barriers

“Texting is extremely controlled and you don’t risk an interpersonal experience,” said Pamela Pressman, a licensed professional counselor in Voorhees who works with adults and couples of all ages. Texting while people are speaking to you is “disconnecting and putting up emotional barriers,” she says.

When we don’t give people, meetings, services or classes our full attention, it prevents us from relating to people and connecting with them. Pressman recently saw people texting after a viewing, moments before the start of a funeral. “How can you get more disrespectful than that?”

At Rowan, professors and instructors are asked to put texting, emailing and cellphone rules in the syllabus so students understand that texting and learning don’t work in concert.

“They aren’t listening to us when they are texting,” said Claudia Cuddy, chair of the journalism department. Recently, a student who came to meet with Cuddy for an advising session reached for her phone when she heard that call of the text. “I said, ‘Put the phone away. This is my time and your time to meet,’ ” Cuddy told me. “Multitasking is taking a toll on every aspect of students’ lives.”

Texting while doing almost everything is exacting a price on politeness and how we relate to one another. My friend Harvey was in a meeting recently for a charitable group in South Jersey. Several participants around the table were texting with each other conducting their own meeting. Not only is that rude, but how is a group supposed to interact and make decisions?

Hope for future

I have hope that we are not doomed to be a society of the turned off and tuned out.

I recently asked two distinct groups if it was rude to text while someone was speaking to you. The first was my book group made up of middle-aged women (the near-50 and over set). Is it rude? “Yes,” was the resounding answer they gave without hesitation.

Then, I put the question to my 18 college students, ages 19 to mid-20s. Acceptable or rude? Again, without any pause, without first texting anyone, they all said, “Rude.”

Acknowledging the problem is the first step to recovery. This epidemic faux pas that I, too, have been guilty of, may pass.

Debra Nussbaum is an adjunct journalism professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

 
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