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 Chicago teenager Anna Schiferl hadn’t yet rolled out of bed when she reached for her smart phone and texted her mom that she wanted cinnamon rolls for breakfast.  Mom was downstairs in the kitchen.

Soon after, Anna heard mom’s voice from downstairs.  “Anna, if you want to talk to me, you come downstairs and see me!”

Associated Press writer Martha Irvine uses this anecdote to remind readers how the over-use of texting can cripple conversational skills.  She cites a Pew Internet & American Life study that underscores how many people with cell phones prefer texting over a phone call, let alone a face-to-face contact.  Irvine also quotes college professors who say that they rarely see students outside class any more.  One reports, “I sit in my office hours lonely now because if students have a question, they email, often late at night.  And they never call, ever.”

 “Conversation is sociological bedrock,” UCLA Sociologist Emmanuel Schegloff wrote many years ago.  He meant that common ordinary, everyday face-to-face or voice-to-voice exchanges are the foundation of all human associations—families, businesses, support groups, educational institutions, and all levels of government.  Executive educator and best-selling author Susan Scott made the same point when she wrote in 2002, “Our work, our relationships, and, in fact, our very lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.

  Relationships exist in the conversations that make them up.  Whether it’s a dating relationship, a marriage, a business relationship, or a family connection, the conversation is the relationship.  Relationship problems begin in specific conversations, negative spirals can be tracked through conversations, and improvement begins when toxic conversations are replaced by healthy ones.

This explains why “management by wandering around” can work so well. When superior and subordinates can chat informally about workplace issues, organizations run more smoothly.  This is also why partners in successful, long-term relationships can identify the crucial “turning points” that built what they have—the first personal information they shared, the first conflict they handled well together, the first sincere compliment, the first “I love you.”  They all happen in conversations.

I was flabbergasted when my high-school son’s monthly cell phone bill listed over 5000 texts.  But today, intense texting is common.  According to Pew, mobile users between 18 and 24 now send, on average, 109.5 messages per day, or 3,200 messages per month. 

Sometimes texting is completely justified.  My sister’s hearing impairment makes texting and e-mail the only ways I can contact her quickly. 

But every text that could have been voice-to-voice or face-to-face impoverishes the relationship by reducing or eliminating the nonverbal elements that, communication research shows, make up the majority of the meaning.  Loudness, tone of voice, pauses, talk speed, and vocal quality are all available on the phone and absent in texts.  When you’re face-to-face, you also have eye contact and gaze (are they looking over your shoulder or around the room?), appearance and dress, proximity, posture, gesture, movement, and olfactory cues (cologne, breath mints, sweat) to fill out your interpretations of what’s said. 

The point is, thick and rich contacts are more informative, more helpful, more credible, more satisfying, and more trustworthy than thin ones.

Throughout your life, your conversational skills will play a big role in your success.  Those who don’t learn to do conversation well, struggle at work and at home.  And the two best ways to become competent at conversation are to interact with skillful conversation partners and to do a lot of conversing yourself.  Don’t let over-dependence on texting rob you of these opportunities to excel.

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