A few days ago I led a workshop on digital and mobile media use with a group of people who were grandparents and parents of older children. One thing that generated a great deal of discussion involved texting. According to these older family members, the way young people communicate via text is shaping the ways that the older people in their lives are able – or, in less positive terms, forced – to communicate with them. And the older generation has mixed feelings about this. I heard stories like those of the grandfather who said, “I try to call my grandson but his voice message system is full so I can’t even leave a message.”
Older people see this lack of availability as an affront or a lack of civility. They know that the younger generation is constantly connected and thus they sense that they are a lower priority than those who are in their grandchildren’s (or their children’s) immediate peer circles. They assume that phone calls from peers are answered, and phone calls from older family members are ignored. But that’s an assumption rooted in a different life experience.
Most people over the age of 35 grew up in a different era when it came to the phone. Throughout most of the twentieth century, when the phone rang, you answered it. In the late 1970s, for instance, my generation debated whether or not having an answering machine was appropriate, and considered it impolite to “screen calls.” Screening calls, as I’ll explain for those younger than 20, meant standing still when the answering machine was recording the voice of the caller, listening to that voice before deciding whether or not to answer the call. Those older than 30 probably remember returning home to an answering machine full of admonitions to “Pick up! PICK UP THE PHONE. I KNOW you’re home.”
Caller ID wasn’t widely used until the 1990s. Today you know who is calling because their name or number shows up on your phone, but it used to be common for people to answer the phone by saying their name: “Hi, this is Lynn Clark.” Now when my pre-1990s office phone with no caller ID rings, answering it feels a like playing Russian Roulette. Will this be a 30-second interaction or a 10-minute one?
Today, in both business and in our personal lives, we’ve come to expect that we’ll indicate our interest in engaging in a longer conversation with a person, and we will give them the courtesy to have some input on when that will happen. In other words, we make appointments now, whether it’s to go on Skype or to have a longer conversation.
Answering the phone is a commitment. We only recognize that now because we have other alternatives.
Younger people see this need for appointment-making as a way of prioritizing time and relationships within what they experience as crowded and overly busy lives. They have been texting for as long as they can remember, and so they recognize that they have choices: they can communicate with people on an ongoing basis through texting, keeping the communication going, and they can also communicate with more depth when needed or desired, through scheduled calls.
To an older generation, it seems as if younger people have more agency in their relationships with the older people in their lives than my generation did, in that they can control whether a certain interaction will be shorter or longer by selecting the communication venue (or in effect, limiting the first contact to a short interaction which is usually a text). We perhaps forget that when we were younger, we also scheduled a time to have longer conversations with our parents. Usually, that schedule was set in advance: when we were in college, the military, or in young adulthood, we were to call on Saturday morning, or on Sunday afternoon. We didn’t usually have shorter conversations with them because it was expensive to call. So whereas we see the short interactions via text as undesirable now, we might have liked it back then, had it been available to us.
We need to recognize that when we call expecting an answer, it’s not that we are being ignored because they don’t want to talk with us. It’s that we are breaking the rules of the game: short interactions come first. Unless you are calling about something that’s going to be happening in the next hour or so, text first. To them, that’s a sign of civility and respect.
Social norms are still evolving in relation to these new media. The challenge for all of us is to recognize that our expectations are just that: expectations. If we can keep in mind why we are trying to connect with the people in our lives, we can learn the ways that this is understood by everyone involved.