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Unintended Consequences of Technology (Part I): Instant Messaging and Selfish Communication

Updated on March 24, 2013
Harbingers of conversational apocalypse?
Harbingers of conversational apocalypse?

Conversations about technology as the downfall of our communication skills are hardly novel anymore – it seems I’ve had similarly themed conversations with nearly everyone I know: People don’t communicate anymore. No one talks face-to-face. Young people don’t even know how to have a proper conversation. Everyone’s going to have arthritis in their thumbs by the time they’re thirty-five. You’ve likely espoused similar sentiments yourself, and almost certainly heard others express them. Yet it seems that most of these conversations don’t go beyond complaining, and that’s a problem. We need to explore not only the root causes of these negative, unintended consequences of technology on our collective communication skills, but also think of possible solutions.

I’ve seen the gamut of distasteful, technologically-induced states, from run-of-the-mill “e-voice” (by which I refer to the monotone, glazed tone of one talking on the phone and simultaneously being electronically involved with email, tv, video games, or the like) to downright rudeness, in my former career as a teacher, where a student of mine has simply ignored me until an appropriate pause in their much more important text conversation. However, I also continue to experience collaborative, engaged, and considerate communication from people of all ages. To complicate things further, I often see both Jekyll and Hyde communication from the same person, in varied situations. This leads me to believe that contrary to popular prophecy – where we all spiral into a dystopic future of glassy-eyed, inconsiderate, zombie-like haze – there’s a good chance we can turn our path around, if only we pay attention and, more importantly, take action. In this series, I’ll speculate on the roots of various unintended consequences of technology, and offer ideas for how to lessen these effects in our lives.

Unintended Consequence: SELFISHNESS

In order to find solutions, we have to fully understand our challenges. So how does selfishness result from technological modes of communication?

If Albus Dumbledore appeared from nowhere in front of someone, I'd understand their instant non-attention... but seeing who liked their newest photo on facebook shouldn't spark the same glazed wonder.
If Albus Dumbledore appeared from nowhere in front of someone, I'd understand their instant non-attention... but seeing who liked their newest photo on facebook shouldn't spark the same glazed wonder. | Source

Selfish-ism #1: All Hail the Instant Message

The first negative outcome of the prevalence of electronic communication is that these e-conversations can take precedence over real, live ones. Some people seem hyper-aware of the fact that IMs have traveled wondrously, mythically, through space, and so give them the same welcome as might be expected if a time traveler or a wizard popped suddenly into view: instant, reverent, undivided attention . It can happen anywhere from casual dinners to birthday parties to work meetings. You’re in the midst of a lively, engaging discussion, when suddenly a high-pitched “ding,” or “beep-boop” or some such noise from a cell phone draws its owner instantly out of the present realm and into their own private world. It is almost as if they have teleported to another lively, engaging discussion elsewhere. In this moment, it strangely feels as though your live conversation is in fact, an electronic one, a telephone call where the “hold” button has been pressed and you are expected to politely wait, except you don’t get any cheesy elevator muzak in the bargain.


Why Do We Do This?

I wonder if people have, throughout history, had a tendency to prioritize technology – from taking time out of their day to watch the first steam-engines roll by on the tracks outside of town, to shushing everyone in the nearby vicinity when news came over the first radios, to blocking out times in our schedule when we can’t participate in other activities because the next episode of our favourite tv show is on… Yes, it seems that we have an innate fascination with technology and the things it brings us, which is quite understandable. However, the difference between those historical examples and the cell phone scenario is that passing trains, radio news, or television shows on cable only happened at a specific time, and so it was impossible to ask the technology to wait while people finished whatever else was going on in their lives. This is no longer the case. With PVRs and text messaging, the content we interact with can nearly ALWAYS be put on hold, usually indefinitely, and it will be waiting for us when we get to it. Yet we continue to allow these new forms of technology – that were, ironically, developed precisely so we could control when they had our attention – to rather control us, to interrupt at the drop of a hat and dictate when we press that “hold” button on the live action of life.

If you're going to pile cell phones, make sure you turn off the vibrate function if someone's really worried about scratched screens.
If you're going to pile cell phones, make sure you turn off the vibrate function if someone's really worried about scratched screens.


This selfish dynamic doesn’t need to perpetuate, and it may be best to approach it with humour. One great suggestion I’ve heard is to make a game of it in social situations. When out with a friend or a group, pile your cell phones in a stack on the table, and challenge that whoever needs to remove theirs first to check something in the otherworld has to buy dessert or drinks for everyone else. If you want something a little more subtle but still funny, sing your own elevator music while your friend is checking their phone, or put your own phone up to your head and say, “Yes, I’m still holding,” every few seconds.

Most importantly, remember to model the actions you’d like to see in others. When you’re in a situation you want to be fully present for, just turn your phone on silent if you can stomach it (and you probably can). If you can’t do that, then when it beeps at you, glance at it quickly, and only start playing with that touchscreen if it’s something that either a) affects the person you’re with so they can be involved, too, or b) has urgent importance. Probably many of the notifications you get don’t fall under either category, and are best avoided until an appropriate moment, like when your live companion goes to the washroom or something.

If you've never seen this, go watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – it’s criminal that you haven’t.

Selfish-ism #2: Delayed Responses

This unintended consequence is just as annoying as #1, in my opinion. I’ll hazard a guess that most of you will connect with this movie reference: “Bueller?... Bueller?... Bueller?” While this is supposed to be humorous hyperbole, as a teacher I sometimes felt like that in general class discussions, asking in vain for some form of participation. The difference was that instead of blankly staring into space as in the film’s famous class, my students’ eyes were downcast, thumbs twitching on their touchscreens. (You might wonder why the students had cell phones in class at all, to which I can only say that this issue is, in some schools, entirely dependent on the administration, and not actually up to individual teachers.) The really grating turn of events is that after you ask politely that the phones be turned off, then try to home in on particular students, and eventually ask one individual for a response multiple times, you receive a very frustrated “I heard you! Just a minute!” about 30 or 40 seconds after you’ve spoken. It seems as though the frustrated person thought you should have known that they heard you, seen that they were busy, and just simply waited until they were finished. It’s the backward perception of interruption again – we see real live people as interrupting our electronic interactions, when often, it’s the other way around.

Why Do We Do This?

I suspect that the reasoning behind this selfish-ism has something to do with texting and IM-ing as mediums that blur the lines between written and spoken communication. Traditionally, written communication carried a reasonable expectation of delayed response, while spoken communication carried a reasonable expectation of immediate response. It was natural to expect to wait days, weeks, or even months for a return letter, and considered a point of etiquette to answer promptly when spoken to. Yet there were other differences as well: letters were reserved for monologues allowing deliberation, planning, and slow articulation, while speaking was the domain of back-and-forth, in-the-moment dialogue with spontaneous, continuous involvement.

The "flow" of Many Instant Messaging Conversations

However, these distinctions have blurred as people have more of their daily “conversations” via text or instant message. We hear often that so much is lost of the art of conversation through these forms, such as facial expressions, body language and tone, so I won’t address this, but rather focus on another lost element: attention. Sometimes these “conversations” in fact become more like a series of short letters in nature, where one sends a thought or question into the electronic abyss and then must wait indefinitely for the flow to continue – by which time, of course, it’s not really a flow anymore, but rather a series of choppy, vaguely connected ideas. On the other end, we have no idea where our “listener” is – have they left the room? Are they talking to someone else? Are they involved electronically in another dialogue altogether, mediated by film or television or another IM chat box? Do we have their full attention? We often don’t know.

When more and more people have “conversations” this way, it becomes the norm. Soon all recipients start accepting that immediate responses just aren’t the thing anymore, and we start to lose the collective understanding that responses or even just acknowledgement that someone else is trying to interact with us are even warranted. Unfortunately, this seems to spill into our spoken conversations as well, as happened with the student in my example above. It was as though because their electronic “dialogue” partners don’t require immediate responses, I shouldn’t have either, even though our interaction operated in real time in a shared physical space


It may be more difficult to approach this challenge with the same humorous methods as for selfish-ism #1. It seems that the decreasing practice of spontaneous, continuously attentive conversation also has the unintended consequence of increasing anxiety when that is what is required. In my experience, people tend to react with irritation when you expect that they acknowledge, process, and respond more quickly, and are merely sheepish when you point out their excessive reverence for an electronic device. So the key here may be a patient and gentle tone, and consideration of when you truly need someone’s attention promptly.

If it seems like someone is fully engaged in a conversational text exchange, do be considerate and treat it like a verbal conversation when you interrupt.
If it seems like someone is fully engaged in a conversational text exchange, do be considerate and treat it like a verbal conversation when you interrupt.

Ask people kindly to put down their electronics when you need their attention. Always remember that in some cases, it is possible to have a flowing, back-and-forth dialogue through electronic means. In these instances, their electronic device may actually represent a real person and a true conversation, and so it does legitimately seem like you are the interrupter, despite the fact that you are physically present. If it seems like this is the case, treat their conversation with the same respect as you would if they were physically in the room with someone else, and don’t demand their attention instantly.

However, sometimes it is inappropriate that someone make you wait while they finish an electronic conversation, such as in a class, at a dinner where group participation in the moment is expected, or at a public place like a grocery store cash register where the texter is slowing down the entire line. You wouldn’t hold up a line because you were talking to a friend standing right next to you, so don’t behave that way when you’re texting – your friend on the other end can wait a minute. In fact, they’ll expect to – it’s a text, after all.

Selfish-ism #3: Multitask Listening

Of all the selfish-isms, this is the one I am most hesitant to talk about, because it’s the one I see the most in myself. It seems to be becoming more common when talking to others that they seem to not be really listening, that their mind is somewhere else, or that their attention is divided. Sometimes, this involves them doing other physical activities while you are speaking in person, but I think it happens most, at least for me, on the phone. If someone calls me while I’m working (or playing) on the computer, I often don’t stop what I’m doing right away. I continue to click around or even type (if I was almost finished a thought) while they begin to converse with me. Too often, I realize that I have missed something my caller said, because my mind was distracted.

Spider Solitaire... the game that seduces me into multitask listening.
Spider Solitaire... the game that seduces me into multitask listening.

Another symptom if this selfish-ism appears when, in the midst of conversation, you realize your companion has an electronic device in their hand and are scrolling absent-mindedly while you talk and their responses have dwindled to “hmmms” and other monosyllabic grunts. Perhaps they’re playing a game or perusing twitter updates, but either way, they’re not fully listening to you. Again, guilty – that spider solitaire app just sometimes calls my name, and I pick up the phone even though I’m in the midst of a group discussion. It’s not that I’m bored, or that what my companions are saying isn’t interesting – it’s that multitasking involving communication has been normalized, and so I partake in it, regardless of whether or not I’m actually successful at it.

The really strange thing is that this particular selfishness appears to be contagious. In groups, it seems that as soon as one person has been drawn away, others don’t like waiting on hold, and so decide that this is in fact the perfect moment to also check their private electronic worlds. Pretty soon you look around and you’re the only one not looking at their mobile, at which point you may succumb out of peer pressure. Seem familiar?

Why Do We Do This?

Personally, I attribute this multitask listening syndrome as a social behaviour pattern that has evolved through generations of IM programs, from ICQ to MSN to Facebook Chat. When IM-ing, it is common, normal, nearly expected that you will have more than one conversation at once. It appeals to the social nature of human beings, creating the illusion that you are surrounded by friends vying for your attention when in fact you are alone in your room. It appeals to the ego, because your participation in each conversation is entirely on your own terms: you don’t have to pay attention to anyone else’s ‘thinking out loud,’ or wait idly while your dialogue partner gets a glass of water or answers the telephone. Rather, you decide when to review someone’s message, how long to wait before answering, and indeed, if you want to answer at all or simply “log off” or change your status to “busy.” The person who has “spoken” to you is not there to make instant demands on your time, and if you really don’t want to address their thoughts, it is easy enough to say that the message never got through – how would they know? Communication becomes more customizable, more attuned to your own preferences, and more subject to your momentary impulses.

However, this results in a dangerous assumption. Because we can successfully carry out multiple IM-style dialogues at once without actually giving anyone our full attention, the same behaviour migrates to the live conversation sphere, but the results are not as successful. There seems to be an assumption now that one is able to have all conversations on one’s own terms, and that multitasking is appropriate during that time, but in live experience someone multitasking while you are talking to them comes off as rude or inattentive. If my distraction is spider solitaire, my husband’s is his guitar, and it drives me crazy when we’re having a conversation and suddenly he picks up his instrument and strums away. He insists he’s listening, just as I insist I’m listening when I’m playing spider solitaire; after all, neither of those activities requires our full concentration. Yet the point is not the intention to be selfish or distracted, but the resulting impression to your companion that you are not giving your full attention.


For me, the solutions here lie in self-change, not requesting that others change. Purposefully do one thing at a time, especially involving communication. Ironically, as I was writing the section above, my phone rang. Instead of following common behaviour of continuing to type and peruse what I had written, I stood up, removed myself from the computer, and sat down on my couch. Once there and chatting, I was tempted to get up and put away some dirty dishes at the same time, but I resisted. I allowed myself to just focus on the dialogue at hand, the relationship at hand… it just felt nicer.

Practice patience. We seem to have become increasingly, collectively impatient with others “imposing” on our time, impatient with the idea of others “interrupting” us, because technology allows us to believe increasingly that it is our right to customize and determine everything about our environment, from climate control to visual appearance to who is speaking to us. But customizing everything takes away some great surprises in life and some great chances to grow and adapt. When I think of my best relationships, they are the ones where in communication each of us is unattached to other things at the time – especially electronics. Ideas flow more freely, topics are more deeply explored, and hilarious moments are more instantaneously and fully appreciated. We multitask enough in our lives – shouldn’t we allow ourselves to be fully immersed in our present conversations?

Where Should I Go Next?

This hub has been the first in a series. If you have another unintended consequence of technology on communication for me to explore, let me know! Otherwise, what do you want to read about next?

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