Texas physician Roberta Ness is helping people, but not in a way you would expect of a doctor. Instead of using a stethoscope or thermometer, Dr. Ness is using dance. Her goal is to help older and younger people better understand one other.
On Sundays, Ness conducts an event called Ecstatic Dance in Houston. Dances last 90 minutes and include 60-80 participants. People can dance any way they want to. “The only rules are,” Dr. Ness says, “no talking, and don’t bash anyone.”
Dancers are anywhere from age 2 to 82. Half of them are under 30 years old. When the dancing is over, people of different ages find it easier to speak to one another.
Ness says, “We oldsters are simply different from the young. And not just because our faces and our middles are baggier. What distinguishes us is history. We, the more ‘mature’ dancers, are shaped by experiences that no longer exist. We lived before social networking and even (gasp) before the internet.”
People use the term generation gap to describe the differences between older and younger people. The term became popular in the 1960s when the younger generation seemed to be extremely different from their parents. The Baby Boomers are the 76 million American children who were born after World War II, between 1946 and 1964. In the eyes of their elders, Baby Boomers seemed to think differently about the world. They liked loud rock and roll music, were quick to criticize government policies, and had new ideas about the roles of men and women in society.
The difference between Baby Boomers and their parents was largely one of beliefs about the world. Today, many people think there is something else separating old and young: technology.
Texting and the Generation Gap
Text messaging is using a cellphone to send written messages to another person. Texts are usually short and sometimes ignore the spelling and grammar rules people learn in school. Views about texting seems to reflect the modern technology generation gap.
A 2014 Gallup Poll found that younger people texted more than older ones. “Texting is the most frequently used form of communication among Americans younger than 50,” the poll concluded. “Texting drops off significantly after age 50, and is used infrequently among those aged 65 and older.” For example, 68 percent of people aged 18-29 regularly sent text messages, while only 8 percent of people 65 and older sent text messages.
Is Texting Rude?
Older people are sometimes critical of texting. Some claim that texting has decreased the quality of written English. Others say that texting in the company of others is not polite. “Add one more achievement to the digital revolution,” writes David Carr. “It has made it fashionable to be rude.”
However, others argue that sometimes a text is actually more polite and appropriate than a phone call. When Casey Scanlon’s sister died, she asked friends and family to text instead of phoning. Scanlon knew her parents would be too upset to answer calls, even if they came from well-meaning people.
Scanlon remarked, “I actually really dislike talking on the phone and avoid it at all costs, but at the same time it’s nice to know that people are thinking of you. I guess texting is like the modern greeting or sympathy card that would have been posted or popped in the letterbox. It’s an unobtrusive way of passing on a message without invading someone’s space.”
Those who text agree that there are polite and rude ways to text. Writer Jacqueline Whitmore says when texting, it is important to know who your audience is and the correct way to address them.
“Each text message is a concrete projection of you and it is important to present yourself in the way you want to be perceived,” she says. “Although you might text one way with your friends, you should text in an entirely different fashion with your co-workers, clients, or prospects.”
Texting and Communication
Texts are meant to be quick and direct, so they usually use fewer words than an e-mail or telephone conversion. As a result, people often use cyber-slang in their texts. When they find something funny, it is easier to write LOL than laughing out loud. When stating something you believe, it’s quicker to write IMO instead of in my opinion. Some people think these shortcuts hurt our ability to communicate effectively.
“I’m a little worried about where we are in America with literacy levels dropping,” admits Shravan Goli, who is president of the website Dictionary.com. “Are these [electronic devices] helping us, or making it worse? I think they may be going the other way and making it worse.” John Sutherland, a professor of English at University College in London takes an even stronger position. “Texting,” Sutherland states, “is penmanship for illiterates.”
Talking with Our Fingers
“Texting has long been bemoaned as the downfall of the written word,” says the Columbia University English professor. “To which the proper response is LOL.”
To support his idea, Professor McWhorter looks at the history of human language. While human language is about 80,000 years old, writing was invented only 5,500 years ago. This means that talking came first. Writing came later.
The first writing, McWhorter says, was based on the way people spoke. Since people usually speak in shorter sentences, the first writing also consisted of shorter sentences. However, since writing is a slower process than speaking, people had more time to write sentences that would be too complicated to speak. As time went on, however, people wanted to use this fancier writing when they wanted to say something important in a speech or essay.
Texting, McWhorter thinks, better captures the way and the speed at which people speak. “In the old days, we didn’t much write like talking because there was no mechanism to reproduce the speed of conversation,” he explains. “But texting and instant messaging do.”
Don’t Take All Texts Literally
McWhorter says that over time, texting is developing its own rules. Sometimes, cyber-slang is a better way to express an idea. McWhorter imagines a text conversation between two friends.
“Jocelyn texts ‘Where have you been?’ and Annabelle texts back ‘LOL at the library studying for two hours,'” he describes. “LOL signals basic empathy between texters, easing tension and creating a sense of equality. Instead of having a literal meaning, it does something — conveying an attitude — just like the -ed ending conveys past tense rather than “meaning” anything. LOL, of all things, is grammar.”
Ultimately, McWhorter believes that “There is no evidence that texting is ruining composition skills. Worldwide people speak differently from the way they write, and texting — quick, casual and only intended to be read once — is actually a way of talking with your fingers.”
Read more about how Dr. Roberta Ness uses dance to connect younger and older people at the Houston Chronicle.
Listen to a talk by Professor John McWhorter about text messaging at TED.com.
Images and Sources
Texting photo: MSgt Mark Moore
Texting photo license: Public domain