Archive for Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Shouts and Murmurs: Teenage text: A modern way to talk

January 3, 2007

We've all seen it.

A teenager's cell phone rings. Because he's set his cell phone to give different ring tones for different friends, he knows who's calling.

"I don't want to talk to him," he says without taking his phone out of his pocket.

Another ring follows. This one a different tune.

He doesn't answer but tells me he'll call this friend back later.

Next, a beep beep sound -- a text message has arrived.

This time he takes the phone out of his pocket, reads the text message and deftly types and sends his reply.

Barely missing a beat, our conversation continues as his text message travels an unknown distance between the sender and receiver.

It's really amazing when you think about it -- the ability to communicate through space.

For a non-techie like me, telephones -- even the old-fashioned landlines -- remain a mystery. How is it I can telephone my mother across town -- farther than I could begin to shout -- and she can hear my voice? And how is it I can telephone my friend in California or my brother in Norway, and hear their voices? No, it just doesn't make sense.

After landlines came cell phones -- which to me were an even more amazing discovery. I joined the club. At first, we doted along with little antennas on our car rooftops, the connected cell phone in a bag half the size of a shoebox. And when we left the car, we left the bulky phone in the car.

Remember the days when, when we saw someone holding a phone to their ear we assumed they had an earache?

Remember when there were no rules against having cell phones in school -- because that was before they were part of our everyday attire?

Remember when someone passed us on the street appearing to be engrossed in an animated conversation with themselves -- and that's what they were doing.

Cell phones have changed all that. They're a part of our everyday wear. Most schools have established rules saying when and where cell phones may be used. And when we see a lone person involved in deep audible conversation, we look for their cell phone, not a psychiatrist.

Personally, I'm as hooked on cell phones as anyone, (though for long phone calls I still prefer the comfort of a landline headset).

On the rare occasions that my husband and I inadvertently leave home without cell phones, we feel like teenagers on the lam. Out of reach and, devilishly, we admit, totally on our own.

But if we had known sooner that the house in the rearview mirror still contained our cell phones, we'd have gone back. And if necessary we would have used one phone or the other, or even the landline to call our phones -- then walk through the house, an ear pitched, to hear the ring.

It's a frantic sort of feeling to lose a phone. You think of the two-year commitment a cell phone company may make you agree to in order to purchase a new phone. With all the returns we've made to our cell phone company we're probably into them for the next 46 years.

And then you just think of the "what ifs" that could happen if you leave home without your cell phone.

What if a relative is rushed to the hospital, what if the barn catches on fire, what if the teenager needs $20 for gas? The list goes on.

But the short answer is, we got along fine before cell phones, and if we had to, we'd get along fine without them again.

The long answer, or at least the question to it, arose in my mind in the middle of the night.

It concerns not cell phones themselves, but the relatively new phenomenon of text messaging.

Why is it teens will forego answering a phone call, but when a text message -- which isn't quite as disruptive as a phone call -- arrives, they'll immediately answer?

Could it have something to do with the fact that the average 18-year-old possibly has had a cell phone for three or four years?

Could it be they're tired of being on call 24-7?

Could it be they're becoming more selective in when they can be reached, extenuating their authority by not answering the phone every time it rings?

As a teenager myself years -- no, decades -- back, I experienced that on a different level. My bedroom was a place where I could go when I didn't want to be reached, when I wanted to be alone and soak up the mystery of what it's like to be growing up, or even just absorb myself in a good book, or look out the window and daydream. There's nothing wrong with a little down time every now and then.

And perhaps, it's possible that -- in this mind-boggling era of 24-7 communication via cell phones -- down time is what the real message of text messaging is all about.

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