Lisa Markwell: Talk is cheap, but texting is cheaper

Simple arrangements such as meeting for a drink can take five exchanges


Does it matter that my child is on the other side of the world and we haven't exchanged a word? Or rather, we haven't exchanged a spoken word. We have texted. And texting, as we know from a new Ofcom survey, has overtaken voice calling as our preferred method of communication. We now send on average 50 text messages a week, double the number we did in 2008. Last year, we spent 5 per cent less time on the phone than in 2010.

I'm part of the problem, not the solution. Some of the 150 billion messages sent last year were from me: a brief scroll through my BlackBerry reveals such classics as "chicken or tuna?" and "come home NOW".

What that shows, of course, is that a text message is a terribly inefficient, inarticulate tool. I try always to be clear, but simple arrangements such as meeting up for a drink can take four or five exchanges; and that quip you might make to somebody about not splitting a bill equally can be read as a terse judgement without the crucial tone-of-voice "banter" alert.

The kid texting "I love it here, I'm considering staying" might well be joking about his Mexican holiday but how the hell do I know? I suspect fear is the driving force behind this text, as so many others. We have become fearful of voice communication, of revealing too much with our voices or being expected to concentrate, listen and respond in a meaningful way, like, on demand.

Who among us hasn't bailed out of an arrangement with a shady "Sorry, stuck at the office"? How much kinder to speak your excuses: unless you have Facetime, a phone spares your blushes.

More troubling still is this: if 58 per cent of adults send messages each day to friends and family, how do the older generation fit in? I realise that my reliance on texting, my shaming shying-away from speech, means that I am rarely in touch with my parents. It's so much easier to text a "how are you?" than risk getting caught for a 10-minute update on Aunt Virginia's health. My father never has his mobile switched on (he's so proud that the battery lasts six weeks at a time). Is it really never the right moment to ring any more?

We might feel a small sense of satisfaction that after years of stiffing us on mobile call charges, our switch to texting is denying the service providers some profit. I'm not sure that we're really texting it to The Man.

What we're gaining is the ability to fly our thumbs over the keys with increasing speed, and to negotiate pavements while gazing down at our mobiles. But what we're losing something more profound: our voices.

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