Casey Whitehead | Ethnography

Digital Communication Etiquette

Ken: One hour. One hour is the maximum wait time for text message response (at least for my dad). It started with a text message asking me a question, followed by the same message repeated in a different way after I had not responded in an hour. This was followed by another text message asking me to call him once 45 more minutes had passed. 20 minutes later I received a phone call, followed by an email after that. I then received two missed calls from my mother (whom my dad had texted, informing her that he could not get a hold of me). I then received another missed call from my friend Alyssa. What was a simple decision on my part to not use my cellular device for several hours escalated to a small panic with in several hours. I finally called my father back once I returned home to find my messages. I asked what the big hysteria was about, he responded saying that usually I “respond instantaneously”. I explained my reasons for leaving my phone (for the purposes of this project) and apologized for the “scare”. After talking to my father I proceeded to call my mother and friend to let them know everything was ok.

This experience gave me great insight into exactly how accessible people perceive me to be. I chose to avoid contact via cellular device and simply communicate the old-fashioned way and came home to a mess. For my ethnography I decided to test the limitations and expectations surrounding text messaging or SMS (short message service) messaging as it is properly called. The first text messages were sent in mid 1980’s and is an 81 billion dollar industry as of 2006, according to wikipedia.

Over the past four weeks I have been experimenting with the etiquette and “traditions” of texting and the relationships that shape those behaviors. I searched around the Internet looking what people thought about this idea that there are rules to texting. There are several blogs and forum discussions surrounding the topic, my favorite is this one. It was interesting to see that many of the sites focus on the rules to texting and dating. I will discuss what I’ve found through the experiences I have had with friends, family and coworkers. I will hope to focus on the differences each relationship has created.

Terry: Several Hours. My mother and I have a very strong relationship. Our text communication is very short. Usually we only text if there is a piece of information we would like to share but it has no necessity to the other person. For example if I have a question for her that doesn’t need an immediate answer or she wants me to know when dinner is. We communicate primarily via phone; however I was able to experiment with our habits. Usually we talk to each other on the phone everyday.

I decided to change this up a bit. Instead of calling her, I sent her several emails over a four-day period. I chose to focus on email because we don’t communicate that way ever. Normally if I want to speak with my mom I will call her cell phone, if she doesn’t answer I will call our house phone. Sometimes I leave a message on her cell, sometimes I don’t. If she has called me and I missed the call, she tends to expect a call back or a text within a couple hours, as do I with her. Email is a medium that I think allows for a response within the next day (however not all people agree on this). Our average time was a couple hours unless a message was sent over night. I am very diligent with my emails, so my responses were faster than hers. She only checks her email in the morning before work and in the evening before bed.

It was interesting to see how the verbal tendencies we have translated into type. I noticed with my emails, that I kept to the point and edited out a lot of the fluff that would be in a normal conversation. Since I was able to plan out the conversation certain details were more precise than they would be if told on the phone. I noticed with my mother’s emails that her tone wasn’t as conversational as mine, it was very precise and thought out. Her writing was also more formal than mine. I tended to type in abbreviations (u for you, r for are, ttyl etc) that some tend to use in texting or instant messaging (yes I still do that). In conclusion with my experience with my mom, it was interesting to note that change in the communication when the medium was switch even though our relationship is still the same. Email conversation is very barring and did not seem as personal as a phone call. I enjoy the friendliness and openness phone calls allow for which email can’t possible have. The spontaneousness of a conversation is eliminated when put in type, which was seen heavily in this example.

Matt: 15 minutes. Matt is a friend that I have known since high school. We are “BBM” friends. An aside for a second: I don’t understand the need to be BBM buddies with everyone just because you have a Blackberry. I am buddies with several people I have never even thought to text. It’s like a social perk that your friends. I believe it is another example of Facebook’s impact on people and their social needs, that instead of exchanging numbers, its cooler to exchange pins. Most people, including myself, don’t actually take advantage of the BBM technology. I have never sent a document over BBM. I don’t notice the instant message aspect to it either. The only thing I think is interesting is the group chat aspect, which I only used because I wanted to try it out. Other than being fun for a few minutes it becomes annoying.

But back to Matt. Matt and I see each other about once a week. We do not communicate via phone. We BBM. He has a very short response time that he allows me. I noticed 15 minutes was around the average time it took him to react to my late response. By then he would send another text complaining that I’m ignoring him or mad at him or being a grump. In various instances he would send several texts in a row. So if I wasn’t actually annoyed at him to begin with, I was after that. Usually I was in class or another situation where it is considered rude to use your cell phone. This became very frustrating at times because I believe that texts are an optional form of conversation. If I do not want to respond I do not need to and furthermore I do not need to inform you of why I do not want to respond. Many people, like Matt, would like an update or a reason why you’re not talking. I feel this isn’t necessary. A text conversation is one that allows for deal and sometimes no response at all. It can continue over the course of several hours or even days. I can understand Matt’s unhappiness with me not responding because I have noticed that I do that with some of my friends, like Erin.

Erin: No expectation. Erin is my best friend, however she (for a lack of a better word) sucks at communicating. She never responds to text messages. She never calls back. She doesn’t respond to Facebook messages. This is very annoying, especially if you need information quickly. I have learned that if Erin hasn’t responded to my message within twenty minutes, she wont respond. Like I said earlier, she has no expectation time for my responses but the downside is, she isn’t aware of other people’s expectations of her. This can be frustrating because if I need to know something I have to further bother her and sometimes get the information indirectly from a friend or roommate that may happen to be near her. For my research I decided that if I need to speak with her, it would only be through phone calls and voicemails. I decided this because I thought she might realize that if I was calling and actually leaving a voicemail that it was important and she should call me back. I was mildly successful but mainly after I told her that was the situation.

I believe Erin was a great resource for me to observe my own habits and expectations of texting and other digital communication. Like Matt I became frustrated when I wasn’t getting the attention I wanted from my friend. However, unlike Matt I did not disclose that frustration with her unless it was a time sensitive situation. I respected Erin’s choice to communicate with me or not. But when comparing Erin and Matt I was surprised to see how I changed my “rules of texting”. I anticipate a response from Erin and am upset when I do not receive one (even though the chances of me getting one a small and I know that) but I don’t feel that way about Matt. I only expect a response from Matt because I know he will but if he didn’t I wouldn’t mind it. Because Erin is my best friend I hold her to a higher standard than Matt, though she may not be meeting my standard. Likewise with my mom, I expect to hear from her more frequently than my dad. If I call m mom I plan to hear from her before my next meal that day. If I call my dad I am surprised to hear from him that evening, usually it takes a day or so.

Will: No expectation. Will is a new friend I have made. We have seen each other roughly 4 times. I talk to him almost every day via text message. He has no expectation in regards to my response time, and nor I fro him. We are not very close but do talk to a lot. We have random conversations about what ever is on our minds. A lot of it is trash talking football teams (he’s a cowgirls fan, I love the redskins). I didn’t change my communication behavior with him for this project, I simply studied the way it works generally.

Initially I saw that the conversations we sometimes generic, no real emotional attachment to them. They weren’t very personal, no quarries into each other’s pasts or families. If talk about personal stuff came up it was the natural progression of what ever the conversation was about, but never sparked a conversation. For example, I brought my dad into a conversation we were having about home brewing. Will homebrews and so did my dad. He and I have never asked questions probing into personal information; that information is always offered up by one of us.

Second I saw that there usually isn’t an end to the conversation. With some of my friends I will end it with a go to go, or bedtime, or ill talk to you later. With Will the conversation doesn’t really end, it is just put off until the next text is sent. This is interesting because even if I am going to bed I don’t cut the conversation off. I leave it open ended. Sometimes it will continue later, sometimes it doesn’t. I also see that I feel no personal duty or requirement to answer in a timely fashion. That may be rude but our relationship is based off randomly seeing each other, I think it is worthy to note that this reflects in our communication style as well.

Final thoughts: Throughout my research I learned a lot about how I communicate with people. I have standards and expectations that I wasn’t even aware of until I tampered with them. I believe that today’s technology allows for great things and one of them is ease of communication. I enjoy the abilities I have to reach any of m friends at a moments notice. I appreciate the fact I can talk to my grandparents who live across the country and much as I want. I think its amazing that I can video conference my friend in South Africa and sit in on meetings for my job back home. These technologies are great, however they all come with limitations and some basic rules. Going through this process has made me a little more aware of other people’s expectations toward communication. I have become more patient and have more respect for others time and choices. Not everyone is addicted to texting as I am, but there are a few out there that are, and probably a bit more.

To summarize here is my Ten Guidelines to Texting.

1. Keep it short. I don’t enjoy reading four messages in a row about what happened to you last night. Waiting for your phone to receive them all is a pain, especially if you never get that last one. Call me and leave me a voicemail or meet up with me later that day and fill me in.

2. Please respond to questions. It doesn’t need to be immediate, unless the situation calls for it, but please don’t leave me hanging.

3. Don’t use too many abbreviations. This did not come up much in my research but when none of the words you used are spelled out, something is wrong. I am fine with the quick lol or ttyl or omg, but anything further is a bit obnoxious.

4. Don’t text while you are on the phone with me (or while driving). You and I are in the middle of a conversation. I can hear you pressing the buttons on your phone texting whoever is more important that me at the moment. It hurts my feelings, please wait the five minutes until were done talking to respond. The driving comment is a safety reminder, my friend re-ended me because “she had to respond to a text.” I was not happy.

5. Remember that I have a schedule. Just because you aren’t doing anything because you skipped your class doesn’t mean I did too. Everyone knows I love my phone and it is with me at all times but please don’t take advantage of that. I have had people text me a 3 am knowing it will wake me up. That’s not nice.

6. Don’t dump someone via text message. That is just plain rude and shows a complete lack of respect for that person and your relationship. It happened to a friend of mine and I was shocked.

7. Don’t over text. If I haven’t responded to your last three messages, I probably don’t want to talk to you.

8. Please edit your text. I have sent plenty of misspelled text messages and many that don’t make any sense. If you use predictive text, make sure you select the right words because things can end up a bit hairy if you don’t.

9. Remember that sarcasm doesn’t translate easily digitally. It is very easy to take something the wrong way when texting. You may be trying to make a joke, but if I don’t know that, it wont be funny.

10. SMS stands for short message service. You are limited to 160 characters for a reason. Please remember that. I know this is the same as the first one, but it’s important.