The sadness my daughter felt on her birthday had nothing to do with getting older or being forgotten -- she'd heard from all her family and friends. But most of her friends emailed or texted or sent e cards with birthday wishes and she told me she missed getting phone calls. Instead of calling and singing "Happy Birthday" over the phone as she has done every year, her friend Trisha texted her greetings this year. My daughter said she didn't miss hearing from people, she missed "hearing" people like Trisha.
For all its convenience and immediacy, digital communication gives us a false sense of intimacy. It allows us to multi-task, to send more than one message at once, and is great for sharing impersonal information and casual chitchat, but the give and take of digital communication lacks the elements of conversation. As an article in Sunday's New York Times observed, "Humor, irony, sarcasm, and even genuine kindness get lost in the cloud. Not every nuance carries over in a hastily tapped text." With texting and IMing, we remain stuck in small talk and never progress to true meaning or depth.
College professors report that students no longer stop by with questions during their office hours, but email instead -- at any time of day or night. Even the daughter who missed getting calls on her birthday confessed that for her generation, texting and emailing is much more convenient for their lives. She lives on the west coast and the time difference between Stockbridge and Berkeley often makes phone calling difficult. When she is available in the evening, I am already in bed.
I find that sometimes I, too, am guilty of avoiding direct contact. I will put off calling a friend because it takes time. Even though I know the time it takes to talk or write a letter is the kind of time that enhances our lives and relationships, I get lazy. Talking face-to-face or having a phone conversation means I have to slow down.
A recent study at the Univer sity of Maryland involved depriving 200 students of digital media for 24 hours. According to the report, "many showed signs of anxiety and cravings similar to those common among drug addicts and alcoholics going through withdrawal by the end of the testing period." The average young person sends and receives nearly 4,000 texts a month.
It is inevitable that texting would change the nature of dating relationships. The convenience of writing a few short words rather than having a verbal exchange is easier and less emotionally risky -- especially for men. How much more convenient to write, "It's over," than to tell someone to her face that you never want to see her again.
But can romance really blossom when the beloved is sending 160 character text messages and using abbreviated words and sentences lacking punctuation? As Gena Grish wrote in a Huffington Post column, " women prefer a man to call, rather than text. We enjoy the sense of emotion conveyed through verbal communication, and texts are very emotionless. Calling a woman tells her that you think she's important, you care how her day was, and you simply want to hear her voice. While texting is an efficient and easy way to communicate, calling requires more commitment, focus and thought."
When I imagine the future of communication, for all the technical gains, I foresee as many losses. As we text and email more, and as more devices for doing so with greater efficiency become available, will we forget what people's voices' sound like? What their handwriting looks like? Will my generation be the last to send cards and notes? To make phone calls?
Christmas is around the corner and I will get fewer cards than I did last year. After all, who has time to buy and sign cards, write notes on them, address and stamp envelopes, go to the post office? Why send a card when we are in touch all the time anyway, tweeting and texting, posting photos and messaging. But there is something about the ritual of opening an envelope and reading holiday greetings on real paper, propping that card with Santa in his sleigh on the mantel that makes me nostalgic for taking time to stay in touch the old-fashioned way.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.