Text, call, email, IM, Facebook, tweet and meet? Communication has become confusing

Posted by the San Jose Mercury News March 12, 2012.

By Sue McAllister

James Daniels checks in with his buddies and sisters with text messages, but he doesn’t text his mother much or — heaven forbid — his grandmother.

“My grandma, I would never in the world text her,” said the 20-year-old College of San Mateo student. “She’d say, ‘Why would you not call me? You don’t want to talk to your grandmother?’ ”

With the proliferation of tech tools for touching base, communication in some ways can be more mind-boggling than ever — as in, we must studiously remember which of our friends check their email. Which ones text. Which ones will pick up their phones. And gauge whether texting Grandma or posting on the boss’s Facebook wall is really the best way to check in.

“We’ve been developing these devices that allow us this ubiquitous communication, and on the one hand it is remarkable and exciting. But we haven’t quite caught up with the problems this revolution has unleashed,” said Andrew Wood, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State.

In years to come, personal communication devices will no doubt be able to take incoming messages from different media and translate them into the forms each of us wants to use, Wood said. (Some already do.) So you could text your mother, but the message will be sent to her voice mail, if that’s what she prefers.

Until those technologies are widely in use, however, many of us mentally divide the people in our lives into categories.Berkeley resident Brooke Deterline says she thinks of some of her friends as “phoners” and others as “texters.” She likes to text friends to say a quick hello — but a couple of them hated that, preferring phone calls.

“I’ve had some bad experiences where I’ve insulted people without meaning to,” she says. To one friend, texting “feels like kind of a blowoff: ‘Hey, I touched base without having to interact,’ ” Deterline says.

Those “hope you’re having a good day!” texts or calls are known as “relational maintenance messages of assurance,” says Justin Boren, an assistant professor of communication at Santa Clara University. Those are messages in which we tell someone else that things are going fine between the two of us, essentially, and Boren says people are now using more technology than ever to send them.

“Some technology today we just take for granted as being acceptable methods of communication that we didn’t 10 years ago, or, in the case of Facebook, even five years ago,” he says. “That does add another layer of complexity to maintaining our relationships.”

And while a text-based message of assurance just won’t fly with some people, it might be nearly the only way to reach others. Deterline’s sister, for example, is a devoted texter. Sometimes, Deterline says, in the middle of a lengthy exchange of texts with her sister, she’ll decide to call her sister’s mobile phone. “And she won’t answer!” Deterline says. “I want to say, ‘You realize I know you’re there on the phone, right?’ ”

San Jose resident David Keller uses the array of options — phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook posts — to communicate with the soccer players he coaches, other volunteers at his kids’ schools and his fellow Rotary Club members. The trick is knowing which people are best reached by which method.

“I’ve got people who don’t get their email till late at night, or who only text, or who only interact on Facebook, or who don’t text at all,” said Keller, 43. “Anyone who works with different groups absolutely has to juggle that all the time.”

Rick Geha, a real estate broker and motivational speaker in Fremont, says he always asks clients at the outset of a transaction how they want to be contacted — mobile phone? email? — and then sticks with what they’ve chosen. He freely hands out his cellphone number and email when he speaks to big groups, but advises people that it is always faster to reach him by calling his cell, not via text or email.

“I had a man recently send me two emails and a text saying, ‘Please call me, I really need to talk to you,’ ” Geha says. But the man’s text got buried among other texts and Geha didn’t see it for a while.

But for every person who thinks “just call me,” there’s another one whose style skews to “just text me.” Oakland resident Miranda Everitt, 26, is one of those. Sure, she calls her mom and her grandparents back in Ohio, but she texts a lot with friends and her father, and she doesn’t much like listening to voice mails when people leave them.

“Often when I get a voice mail, it’s like, ‘Why didn’t they just text me that?’ ” she says.

San Jose State’s Wood says much of personal communication comes down to being courteous to the people you’re interacting with and gauging which method will be the right choice for the situation. For example, “In certain contexts I’m an email person,” he says. “When I’m answering a question, I like email because I have the time to reflect on an answer.”

But when it comes to real discussion, he says, his favorite medium is a time-honored one that many people still crave in our digital society.

“It’s one-on-one conversation, in a diner,” he says, “just two people talking. That’s when I’m at my best.”

Contact Sue McAllister at 408-920-5833. Follow her at Twitter.com/suemcal.

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