By Lilly Gelman
In one of my all-time favorite episodes of the Fox comedy series New Girl–a show following the life and adventures of Jess and her four male roommates—Schmidt, a particularly ridiculous member of the group, gets a phone call. After exclaiming in extreme confusion, “What is that? What the hell is that noise?” his roommate Nick sarcastically explains that it is his “cellular technology.”
While Schmidt’s confusion pokes fun at the rarity of millennial phone calls, he does not stand alone as someone who has “not received a non-text message in two years.” In fact, according to a 2014 study, 68% of millennials text “a lot” on a regular basis, and most prefer texting to phone calls. Additionally, over 50% of adults ages 18-24 indicated that a text conversation holds as much meaning and significance in a relationship as a phone call.
Instant messaging does prove more effective in the workplace; it eliminates the need for socially required small talk and erases the challenge of interpreting non-verbal cues, causing productivity-driven millennials to prefer WhatsApp and Facebook messenger to old-fashioned calling. The lack of face-to-face—or at least voice-to-voice— interactions, however, leaves a gaping hole in the process of building our relationships and friendships.
A text message comes completely free of intonations, body language, and eye contact. The reader, as opposed to the sender, holds all the power of interpretation. Once we hit send, we relinquish control of our words, and the meaning behind what we thought we said flies out the window. One could understand the simple answer of “ha ha” to a joke as both a genuine, positive response validating the comment as funny, or as a facetious answer to something that never actually elicited a laugh. This ambiguity in meaning leads to a constant mess of miscommunications and texting faux pas requiring explanations of previous messages and the occasional long, ranty voice note.
Friendships built over text not only cause misunderstanding of the individual messages, but of the person themselves. We don’t connect with people simply because of what they say, but also because of how they say it. We can relate to the content of someone’s dialogue to the nth degree, but if they say it with an angry tone, or while constantly checking Facebook in the middle of the conversation, chances are we’re not going to want to invest so much into that friendship.
In an article in The Commentator, the Yeshiva University students newspaper, Tzvi Levitin writes, “When the virtual connection develops more quickly than the face-to-face one, you’re left with an illusion of a great relationship that quickly deflates when you realize you don’t have much chemistry when you spend time together.” By creating emotional bonds early on over instant messaging, we risk the possibility of deeply involving ourselves in a friendship, or even worse, a romantic relationship, that we may have never started in the first place had the conversation been held over a cup of coffee.
This potentially friendship-damaging “cellular technology” seems to have made a pretty permanent mark on our social lives and close relationships. All hope for healthy, phone-involved friendships, however, is not lost; we just need to remember that, in addition to texting and WhatsApp, Facetime and voice calls are just some of the many other features on our phones.