Sometimes you find out what the unwritten rules are by breaking them.
This is something I learned best when I was in graduate school. One of my professors, the enigmatically named anthropologist, Ray Lee Birdwhistell, led his students in exercises designed to break rules of social etiquette. Like his colleague Erving Goffman, Birdwhistell knew that deviating from normal social discourse can shed new light on it. He would send us on to elevators to look people right in the eye instead of at the display showing floors, or out on crowded public transportation where we were instructed to take up more than one seat -- just to see how people would react.
I lead my own students in a modern day version of this exercise by asking them to think through and articulate the unwritten rules of social media use. In my graduate seminar at Tufts during a recent class, one student recounted how a friend had actually left a voice message on her phone instead of texting her. "Did someone die or something?" she recalled asking the friend. At hearing this tale, her classmates exploded in raucous, knowing laughter. For millennials, this is the unwritten rule: you text unless something is really, really wrong.
By now we know how incredibly ubiquitous and pervasive cell phone use is in the lives of American young people. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that a whopping 88 percent of American teens have or have access to cell phones or smartphones, that of them the huge majority report using their phones in large part to exchange texts and that the "typical teen sends and receives 30 texts per day."
And it's also not exactly news that most millennials don't like using the voice mail functions of their phones. A 2014 NPR story delineated many reasons that, outside of work, voicemail is not the preferred form of getting in touch for this cohort. It was perhaps best summarized by one interviewee who said that leaving or listening to messages "just takes too much time."
My own 15-year-old son has even refused to put a voicemail message on his phone. "What's the point?" he asked. "People should just text me."
I asked a group of my students to try the Birdwhistell/Goffman experiment a la 2015: for one day, instead of texting the messages they normally would send to their family and friends and classmates, they should call. If the calling recipient picked up his or her phone, my students should simply convey what they would have by text in conversation; if the recipient didn't pick up, my students should actually leave a voice message. A few of my students seemed truly horrified by the assignment, but several of them were intrigued. "It'll sure be...different" mused a thoughtful senior.
The next week I asked students to discuss what had happened with the experiment. Several of them reported that their friends' responses ranged from,
"Is something wrong?" to "I can't believe you're actually calling me to ask if we can meet up later!" to "How quaint -- you left me a voicemail!" The latter, of course, was a texted response.
Students reported that most of their parents seemed surprised but delighted to get vocal updates from their progeny, though one student said her mother's first response to a voicemail she'd left just to say hi was, "What's the matter? Why didn't you text?"
When I asked students how they had felt about violating the unwritten rules of contemporary discourse most expressed some degree of discomfort. "It was strange to call my friends to make plans, because it took more time than texting and they thought it was weird for me to call," said one sophomore. "My mom was thrilled and I have to say that even though it was a little uncomfortable at first, I felt it was actually better to chat about things that happened during the day than to have our usual text exchange" added a junior. A senior admitted her surprise that "I felt like I was connecting with my friends in a deeper way even though we were still mostly communicating about trivial things." And one student reflected, "I sure hope that we're not losing our ability to talk to each other. I was glad to have an excuse to do that."
The results of this exercise with my students would be no surprise to Sherry Turkle. She's been talking a lot lately about her new book about talking, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle, a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT, has for years studied the effects of people's relationships with various types of technologies. Her newest work, she's said in many interviews, isn't anti-technology, but it is about some of the by-products of what can happen to our conversations when we're too focused on our phones. She stated, "I take my guide from the from the college junior who said to me: 'The problem isn't our texting... It's what our texting is doing to our conversations when we're together that's the problem.'"
When I sent my students to violate the rules of textual discourse, most came back thinking that maybe the rules need to change. Maybe we should all listen to what Turkle is suggesting. Maybe we need to start to reclaim conversation in new ways -- new ways, which might, in fact, be the old ways.