It seems the days when people communicated primarily by looking one another in the eye and speaking, then listening, are gone. So are the days when folks picked up a good, old-fashioned land-line telephone and said what needed to be said.
A glance inside a cafe reveals people communicating via various modes of technology. Some are sending and receiving text messages on their cellphones. Others are talking on them. Amid the pool of individuals using social networking sites and emailing on laptops, you might catch the odd couple looking one another in the face and having a conversation in person.
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Technology also has changed the landscape of kitchens across the country, and not only in terms of appliances. Moms are no longer just grabbing the ringing telephone while they cook dinner. They are emailing a teacher or boss, fielding a text alert from a teen or a husband who is running late, and maybe responding to a message from a friend on Facebook. With any luck, no one will pop up on her Skype bar, and if someone does, she hopes to be presentable.
Technology is intended to create convenience, not pressure. But as its use becomes increasingly common, people are finding that for communication technology to work well, it must be managed wisely.
Frances Cade, chairwoman of the behavioral and social sciences in business division at Hagerstown Community College, cites a study called the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index in which researchers found that 30 percent of adults said the cellphone is the invention they "most hate but cannot live without."
"People use them so badly," Cade said. "There are people who are constantly yelling on them in public places, people who think everyone wants to hear their musical preferences through ring tones, people who text constantly. There is just some really bad behavior. People are being rude with their cellphones and the way they are using them."
Those who aspire to use technology well, she said, must adhere to some basic principles.
Put it in a nutshell.
Texting is appropriate for conveying informal messages that are short and sweet.
"It works when you can make your message clear and concise," Cade said, "when you can get to the point and not have to write too much."
Marlene Seifert, a Hagerstown wife and mother of three, said she keeps texting simple.
"I wouldn't do it for the office or important things," Seifert said. "It's more social."
She said part of the appeal of texting is its escape value.
"It's a good thing if you have a friend or relative who talks too much. You can get off quicker (than speaking on the telephone)," she said.
Put it away.
You wouldn't show up on the baseball diamond for a ball game with your tuba. It's just not appropriate.
Likewise, cellphones should not show up in all locales with unbridled abandon. Texting should meet a standard of reason and courtesy.
Kristin Detrow, 35, of Williamsport, recalled picking up her sons from child care one day and finding one of them crying. When she asked what had happened, she was dismayed to receive a mumbled reply from a care provider who was preoccupied with texts on her cellphone.
"She continued to text and never made eye contact with me, never even glanced up," Detrow said. "I felt like she was being incredibly rude. I didn't think texting was the sort of thing someone should be doing when they are supposed to be responsible for taking care of children."
Cade said discourteous and irresponsible texting arises in settings across the board. People are texting with growing frequency, even during business meetings, sometimes at seminars or trainings they are purportedly leading.
"Certainly you shouldn't be texting in meetings," Cade said. "And if you must, we should always excuse ourselves."
Whether in casual or workplace settings, Cade emphasized the importance of "being present with the people you are with."
"You can't do that if you are distracted, if your attention is divided. Most people think they can text and email and still pay attention to people who are speaking. But they can't fully pay attention, and they can't remember fully what people have said to them," Cade said.
Leave the novels to the novelists.
Like texting, the concept behind email is informality and brevity. Exchanges requiring a great deal of ancillary information do not apply.
"The point to using email is to communicate information being clear and being brief," Cade said. "If there are too many details, if an email becomes the equivalent of rambling in conversation, you really shouldn't be using that form of communication."
Amend before you send.
Communication technology that relies solely upon the written word poses the risk of miscommunication.
"Texting and emailing don't offer the benefit of nonverbal cues, like voice inflection, facial expression and gestures, all of which convey meaning," Cade said. "When you don't have face-to-face communication, you can miss out on all that, so a miscommunication can happen very easily."
High school teacher Jeff Rowe, 42, of Williamsport, said attempting to communicate with parents of his students by telephone can lead to phone tag and become time-consuming. Though he is available to talk by phone, he finds email to be a better option.
To prevent miscommunication, Rowe said he writes "to be heard more than just read."
"I am very careful about what I say in an email," he said. "Usually, after I write it, I go back and read as a listener and think, ‘How would this sound?' I am not saying I am never misunderstood, but in general, I don't find it to be an issue."
When in doubt about the content of a drafted email, Cade recommended saving the message to the draft box for an hour or more.
"If there is any possibility you will regret sending it, save it for a while and go back to it," she said. "Most people are very surprised when they return to the message. They are glad they didn't send and that they had a chance to change things."
Ditch the screen for the real thing.
There are situations in which no mode of communication technology will trump a good, old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation.
"The human element is the sort of thing we are starting to lose, the sorts of things that can't be communicated through electronic communication," Cade said.
Charity Norris and her husband, Dan, both 34, of Williamsport, noted a pattern of miscommunication with some individuals whose emails seemed abrasive, while direct conversations in person presented no disputes.
"The emails sounded ';not nice,' but then when we'd talk person to person, their heart behind it was different," Charity said. "Finally Dan just said, ‘Listen, we can't email anymore. We just need to call each other or get together.'"
Cade said meeting in person also is the best bet when communicating with a person for the first time and when conveying emotionally sensitive information.
"You really shouldn't use email or text for venting personal criticism or for telling people off," she said.