Communication Issues – Text vs. Talk for Teens

writingpicMy son Bailey, age 14, a freshman in high school, got an text message from a girl who is friends with Bailey’s date for homecoming dance.  The girl told him that his date is only going with him because she feels sorry for him.  The message went on to say that Bailey shouldn’t think he’s “all that” and not everyone likes him as much as he thinks they do.  It didn’t even stop there. It said he must be some sort of loser because he often sits in a group of girls at lunchtime. There was more, but you get my drift.

To me, Bailey’s mom, he is a fun-loving, silly sort of kid who loves people of all types and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.  He had forty-five kids at his bar mitzvah last year, all of whom looked like his good friends to the adults watching. He tells me he has friends in the orchestra where he plays violin, and friends on the field where he is currently playing JV football.  However, this is my view of him – I have to remember that I have no real idea who he is at school and how he acts there.  He’s so generally happy at home that it leads me to believe he’s a fairly well-adjusted teen.  Maybe he is a bit cocky at school – or overly dorky – or something else that I don’t even know.  It’s not my business to know every detail of his social life.  I’m just glad he has a social life for me to ignore.

When I was a fourteen-year-old girl, I didn’t have such a bright social life.  I was overweight and decidedly uncool with glasses and weird clothes.  I used to write letters to various kids at school who would not tease me per se, but would rebuff my efforts to be friends.

Here’s the difference: I would leave the letters in stacks on my desk at home and then every so often I’d re-read them and ball them up for trash can. If I wanted to communicate with anyone for real, I had no choice but to do it over the phone or in person. I don’t pretend that kids being mean to one another was invented in this young generation; I just think it’s a lot easier to press the “send” button on a nasty text or email than it was for me to send a pen-and-ink letter.  In a way it was harder for my mom and dad to find out what I was up to when the door to my room was closed.  There wasn’t a mobile phone on which they could snoop into my texts and emails.  There’s a sometimes-blurry line between privacy and needing to monitor the behavior of young people.

HOWEVER, the day after this message, I learned that my son wasn’t so innocent in the whole matter.  It turns out that though the girl started it by sending a bunch of messages trying to tell him that his date doesn’t like him in “that” way, Bailey got mad at her for saying it, and called her email antics “bitchy” and that’s when she sent him the mean message.  Learning about Bailey’s role in the exchange changed my perspective pretty quickly.  To my husband and me, this was the perfect opportunity to discuss communication skills in general. As parents of these young teens, we have to take some responsibility for teaching our kids right from wrong.  But it goes deeper than that; we have to teach them about the power of their own words, both oral and written.

When he first got the message and I thought it was in a vacuum, I counseled Bailey to delete the text, the equivalent of balling up paper into the trash can.  It’s gone.  But then my husband sat Bailey down and told him that enough was enough.  This use of go-betweens and texting was inappropriate at best, hurtful and harmful at worst.  His best course of action, we told him, was to talk to the girl he is taking to the dance.  He should be as nice to the girl who was texting him as he always was and he should sit exactly where he wanted to at lunch. Then he should open a line of communication with his date, who clearly knew about the conversations.  And you know what? He did. Bailey told us that he and both girls decided (over lunch together) to just forget the exchanges ever happened. At the end of the day, I was proud of the way he handled himself, even if he didn’t start off so well.

Bailey, my husband and I learned a number of lessons from all of this.  We live in a society that over-shares. We have to tell ourselves to “think before you tweet” in our social-media-driven world, and though we have to give him a modicum of privacy, as Bailey’s parents, it behooves us to monitor his communication tools.

However, the number one lesson that Bailey learned is the power of direct communication face-to-face with his friends as opposed to listening to third-party opinions, writing emails and pressing the “send” button too quickly.  There is no substitute for looking a person in the eye and speaking with him or her.

Kids today are learning to hide behind texting, emails and social media (and don’t get me started on the grammar issues inherent therein) so they don’t communicate directly.  While I’m sorry it took a lousy experience like this to teach Bailey the lesson, I’m not that sorry it happened.  I only hope we all learned something along the way.

I Can’t Hear In Email Very Well

The other day, the American School in Japan (ASIJ), where my son is in 8th Grade, sent out an email reminder to ask parents to e-sign a permission slip for the kids to stay after school to go to the high school football game. It’s a K-12 school, and once or twice a semester, the games are played on a Friday night under the lights instead of on Saturday morning, and the PTA makes a night of it with concessions, games for kids, etc.  However, ASIJ is in Chofu, about an hour outside of Central Tokyo, so transportation is always an issue.  It happens to be the night of the middle school dance, and normally because of the distance, dances are held from 4:30-6:30 so the kids take a late bus home. The school was asking middle school parents to sign that they are responsible for their own kids at game-time, after the dance, and will get them home safely.  If the parent isn’t going to be there, he or she has to list who exactly is responsible for the child.  Very American-style safety-conscious.  My mother would be so proud.

Both parents get this particular email.  When it came into my in-box, I ignored it because I knew I had already signed the permission slip for Bailey.  My husband, Marc, forwarded it to me asking, “Did you do this?”

My response, in my mind, was a little snarky: “What do you think?”

Well, I’m generally pretty on top of the Weinstein schedule and work very hard to make sure permission slips and things aren’t lost in flux.  I’m not perfect and I make plenty of mistakes, but I’m very detail oriented and I have a good record.  To me, that was already ticked off the list.  Been there, done that.

That wasn’t how Marc “heard” the message though.  He “heard” me asking his opinion on whether or not Bailey should go to the game and IF we should sign the permission.  “What do you think? (About Bailey doing this event?)

So Marc’s response was: “I thought he was intending to do this, no?”

I was astonished.  He totally misunderstood me, and for a minute, I didn’t understand what he meant, either.  I wrote back: “You loony – you asked if I did this and I asked, what do you think – meaning do you think I did it?  Well of course I already did it!  There was no harm in doing it.  If he changed his mind, he could get on the late bus after the dance.  But I’m sure he wants to stay.  We’ll drive out there to be there before 7.  The dance ends at 6:45, so we should probably be there before that so we’re officially responsible for him.”

That’s when Marc realized the miscommunication: “That’s the problem with email.  When I read it, I heard you asking it as, “do you think we should let him stay” as opposed to, “duh, of course I already did it.”

That’s when I responded, “Yes, hearing is pretty lousy via email, I agree.”

Marc’s response, knowing me very well indeed, “Sounds like a blog post.”

Ha!

We are lucky, Marc and I, that we have become pretty adept over the years at clearing up miscommunications.  People get in trouble for what they say via email all the time, partly because the recipient can’t hear the intended innuendo, tone of voice, or facial expression.  I’m sure when phones were first invented people had miscommunications all the time.  Now we have a thousand different ways to communicate and just as many ways to MIScommunicate.  People get knots in their knickers about this all the time when a simple, “what do you mean?” type of question would be indicated.  It’s not that hard.  Just tell people that you have trouble hearing them when they email.

We are going to enjoy that football game on Friday!

Communication Issues

Everyone has a smart phone in this crazy world.  We have apps, texting, and access to email all day, every day.  Some might even call it 24/7 access to communication tools.   However, to me, it seems that the smarter we get with these phones, the less we seem to communicate.

Now before you go calling me a technophobe or a Luddite, or anything else, please note that I have a smart phone and I use it mightily.  In fact, I love it.  I rely on it so much that it’s always at my hip.  I know my students love that I can be reached all the time, and my kids find it handy also.  My husband loves to text me to tell me that he’s going to be late coming home from work because then he doesn’t get immediate feedback from me and I have time to consider my words before replying.  A phone call does not allow that type of consideration.

What gets us in trouble is when we use these types of tools to replace voice communication.  My son, age 12, prefers to text or email a friend to ask him to come over to hang out rather than to call and arrange the date.  I was talking with a friend last week, and she told me that her nearly-13-year-old daughter was having some trouble with some girls at school – the typical adolescent friendship triangle where both of the other two girls didn’t want my friend’s daughter to be friends with the other girl.  My friend’s daughter felt like she couldn’t talk to the girls at school – there wasn’t time in the day.  So my friend suggested that her daughter call each girl.  That was rejected as too scary.  What my friend’s daughter ended up doing was sending a tentative text to test the waters of the girls’ feelings.  My friend was upset – how could she teach her child to communicate when there were so many methods available to avoid full-on communication?  She did not understand how the three girls could resolve their differences via text message.  And as of yet, they haven’t.  They are all practicing studious avoidance – and it’s causing more problems.  Some of this is typical adolescence, but some of it is exacerbated by technology as well.

I see it in my students all the time.  They sit next to each other and send text messages to each other. In class their phones are on silent but I hear a distinct “hummn” of a vibrated incoming message every few minutes from someone’s pocket or backpack.

My sister-in-law said that a few years ago, she was in the habit of driving carpools for her kids to various activities, and all of a sudden, she realized she had a car-full of  six kids from ages 14-16 who were completely silent.  All of them were looking down studiously at their phones and texting.  No one spoke.   I read a facebook status a few weeks ago: “It is imperative when driving that one person in the car stop texting to watch for the light to turn green.”  They’re not texting and driving, technically, right?

I am certain that more than 100 years ago when the telephone became ubiquitous that people lamented the lack of face-to-face visits which were being replaced by phone conversations.  We had the same crisis-like posts when email came on the scene in full-force, too.  This is the same concept.  I guess as long as some type of communication is happening and kids are not sitting alone in their houses all the time doing it, we’re still in somewhat good shape.

There is a lot about which to worry in these scenarios, though.  Voice communication is going down, as is face-to-face communication.  Texting language, in all of its glorious brevity, is appearing in more and more written communication inappropriately.  What does this mean for kids now?  Well, I think it means more assiduous attention to detail and teaching communication skills.  There are times when texting is fine – confirming a meeting time, sending a brief comment.  But there are times when a phone call is better – ironing out a problem, expressing love.  And importantly, sometimes only a visit will suffice – to a grieving friend or family member.  As I tell my students, it’s important to “know your rhetorical situation.”  Check your audience and then act appropriately.  Do not use texting language when communicating with your professor.  Conversely, do not use long words when texting.

All of these methods of communicating could lead to MORE communication between people if it’s all used appropriately.  It is up to us, as the teachers and parents of the young people, to teach kids the appropriate ways to do it.  Are you up for that challenge?  I am.