Is Texting the Death of Small Talk?

The Scream prefers texting to talking

Woman texts her husband on a cold winter’s morning:
“Windows frozen.”

Husband texts her back:
“Pour some lukewarm water over it.”

Woman texts back:
“Computer completely dead now.”

Maybe you haven’t ever misconstrued a text (or “miscontexted”) that badly, but the above joke highlights one of the challenges of texting:   a greater likelihood of misinterpretation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love texting!  Texting is great for short, informational messages. Plus, you don’t have to worry as much about interrupting people (although people will often interrupt themselves to look at a text).  And, I prefer receiving a text to receiving voice mail (does anybody really like voicemail?).

My biggest concern with texting is for teens and young adults, who may be losing the ability to make conversation and small talk, which is still a vital skill in the workplace (and in personal life).

According to a study published last year by the Pew Research Center, “Young adults are the most avid texters by a wide margin. Cell owners between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages on a normal day—that works out to more than 3,200 texts per month—and the typical or median cell owner in this age group sends or receives 50 messages per day (or 1500 messages per month). Cell owners between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages on a normal day—that works out to more than 3,200 texts per month—and the typical or median cell owner in this age group sends or receives 50 messages per day (or 1500 messages per month).”  Pew’s more recent research shows that the  number of texts for median teen texter (ages 12-17)  has risen to 60 text per day from 50 texts per day in 2009.

That’s a lot of texting.  That’s a lot of time not talking.  “Heavy text users are much more likely to prefer texting to talking. Some 55% of those who exchange more than 50 messages a day say they would rather get a text than a voice call.”

The preference for texting over talking has, anectodally, resulted in decreased interpersonal communication skills, on the phone and face-to-face. Are we losing the art of small talk?

 “It is an art that’s becoming as valuable as good writing,” says Janet Sternberg, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York who is also a linguist.

In the most extreme cases, she’s noticed that more students don’t look her in the eye and have trouble with the basics of direct conversation – habits that, she says, will not serve them well as they enter a world where many of their elders still expect an in-person conversation, or at the very least a phone call.

On today’s college campuses, the dynamic is often different. Forget about things like “office hours,” for instance. Many professors say they rarely see students outside of class.

“I sit in my office hours lonely now because if students have a question, they email, often late at night,” says Renee Houston, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.

“And they never call, ever.”

She recalls overhearing students chuckling about the way people older than them communicate.

“My parents left me a VOICEMAIL. Can you believe it?” one said, as if voicemail had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

–From Text Messaging: Is Texting Ruining the Art of Conversation?

Here’s a table of some of the talking vs. texting issues that I see:

Texting is a valuable mode of communication, but it can’t completely replace voice or face-to-face conversations (which include online face-to-face technologies such as Skype).

What can we do to ensure that texting isn’t the death of small talk?  A few ideas:

  • No-texting zones/rules (for example, no texting family members in the same house)
  • Eat dinner with your family and don’t allow texting at dinner.  Talk.
  • Encourage video/Skype/Facetime conversations with people at a distance
  • High School and College Classes on interpersonal communication
  • Use of  the Toastmasters International’s Interpersonal Communication Program for Youth
  • Encourage young adults (well, anyone over 18) to visit a Toastmasters club, to see how they might benefit from the communication and leadership skills
  • Speech classes that include a component of impromptu speaking (which is something I include in my youth classes as detailed in Speech Class for Teens)
  • Give the young adults  in your life a copy of Small Talk Big Results: Chit Chat Your Way to Success!  It’s a quick read on the basics of small talk and networking (and yes, I wrote it!)

Do you have some ideas?

opening joke source

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Powerful Words on Purpose: My Toastmaster Story

Do you remember the first time you realized that the spoken word had power?

Was it when you were small and asked someone to be your friend, and they said yes?

Or, maybe someone used words to hurt you and even though your mom said, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you,” you knew that wasn’t true.

Or, maybe, like me, you found out . . . by accident . . . words just came out of your mouth and people reacted.

This me at three. Big teeth. Big smile. Bad hair days. . . .some things never change!

However, one thing that did change for me at 3 was that I realized the power of the spoken word.

My mother had brought me to work to meet her boss and coworkers. One look at her boss and I was in awe. She was just about the ugliest woman I had ever seen—long pointy chin, hooked nose, dark, bushy eyebrows over beady eyes. I blurted out, “Mommy! She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West!” Suddenly, there was complete silence. Wow. I had made quite an impression!
My mother turned to me and said, “Diane, don’t you mean, Glenda the Good Witch?”

Hello? Did my mother just lose her mind? “No. Glenda was pretty!”

Fortunately, my mother’s boss started laughing and all was well. And I had found a new power—the power of words.

Over the years, I have continued to learn that my words can have a powerful effect.

From saying “I do” more than 30 years ago when I married my husband to saying yes to adopting my 2 youngest children. When we adopted our youngest child, Yuri, six years ago at age 12 from Russia, words were especially important as both my husband and I had to prepare 10-minute speeches to deliver in front of the judge—speeches that had to be interpreted as we spoke and speeches that would determine if the judge would allow us to adopt Yuri. I even had to convince the judge that we weren’t adopting Yuri just to be slave labor or to harvest his organs.

Those were powerful, life-changing words.

I can thank Toastmasters for helping me develop powerful words.

I’d like to tell you that my joining Toastmasters was part of a bigger plan for my life—a powerful plan for powerful words—but it wasn’t—well, maybe it was—it just wasn’t my plan.

When I first visited a club, Rogers Toastmasters, in late 2003, I wasn’t looking to become a polished speaker or to enhance my leadership skills; I was just looking for a club that would allow my homeschooled, teenaged son to participate, even though he was too young to join. They welcomed his participation, on one condition—I had to join the club!

I joined the club and the next week, I was in a leadership position, as educational vice president, helping to plan club meetings. Over the past few years I have held several club and district leadership positions, greatly improving both my management and leadership skills—“on-the-job” leadership training in the non-threatening and supportive environment that is a hallmark of Toastmasters.

In addition to growing in leadership, I grew in communication skills, through the various projects emphasizing different aspects of communication from the basics of organizing a speech to the challenges of leading discussions. I even entered and won a few speech contests.

As my confidence as a speaker and leader grew, I began to see myself differently. I began to see myself as someone who could use words that could uplift and inspire others—and I could do it on purpose! And, I started with helping people in Toastmasters.

I’ll never forget the first time I mentored someone in Toastmasters—her name was Barb.

Barb was an older woman, in her mid-60s.

When Barb joined my club, I was excited. Now I wasn’t the only woman in the club! I couldn’t wait to hear her icebreaker speech.

The day of her icebreaker arrived and she approached the lectern like someone on a death march. When she got there, she set her notes down, gripped the sides of the lectern, and looked down at her notes and . . . for the next 5 minutes . . . didn’t look up.

Her voice shook. Her hands shook. The lectern—well, it looked like we were having an earthquake. Then, she started to hyperventilate.

It was one of those speeches that both the audience and the speaker couldn’t wait for it to end.

When she finished, she sat down next to me and didn’t say a word until the end of the meeting when she turned to me and said.

“That was awful. I quit.”

I didn’t want her to quit. She was the only other woman, after all!

“Barb, why did you join?” I asked.

“Well, I want to be able to speak at my church to raise funds for a medical mission trip to Argentina.”

“Barb, if that’s still important to you, don’t quit. I’ll help you.”

For the next 6 months, My club members and I helped Barb overcome her fears and polish her presentations.

Six months after that dreadful speech, Barb not only spoke at her church, she also competed in the club humorous speech contest and won!

“I’ll help you.” Powerful words.

Other toastmasters have helped me–encouraged me even more than I have encouraged them—with powerful words of encouragement.

It was with the encouragement of other toastmasters, that I began to consider developing myself as a professional speaker.

Three years ago I applied for a job to teach high school class room workshops for a local college. Vitalia Bryn-Pundyk—she and her husband Roman, are both Distinguished Toastmasters and professional speakers—was a major source of encouragement.  Vitalia was employed at the college and she clued me in that the “information session” was really a thinly disguised audition—everybody had to stand up and talk for a couple of minutes—they used that impromptu speaking to thin the crowd. That was the first of 3 auditions. For the third audition, they told us to prepare to sell something to teens—a product, a service or a concept for 3 minutes. However, they also said, that they would tell us to stop before the 3 minutes was up—when they had heard enough to make a decision.

Picture this: a classroom style room with the two decision makers sitting at the back. 10-15 people who had made it through first two rounds of auditions and this is the final audition. You don’t know how long you really will be speaking, but you know you have to wow them at the start.

Guess how long I spoke before they told me to sit down?

Only 20 seconds.

I used a familiar example—one I’d heard another speaker use—but high school students probably hadn’t.

“Raise your hand if you’d like this $100 bill.”

(I held up  a $100 bill. After most raised their hands, I immediately crumpled the bill, threw it on the ground, stomped on it and then jumped on it with both feet.  I then Then picked up and showed crumpled bill to the audience)

“Do you still want it?” (people raised hands) “Of course! It’s still worth the same!”

“Like this $100 bill, even though some people may have crumpled you, or trampled on you in the past, you are still worth the same.”

I had more but that’s where they stopped me and I got the job.

I could thank my toastmaster experience, and my toastmaster friend’s powerful words of encouragement.

That’s how I got my start as a professional speaker! I now speak to corporations and associations on communication and leadership topics, coach others on speaking and even teach a speech class to homeschooled students.

Where could your powerful words take you?

Now, you might not want to be a professional speaker, but your powerful words can make a difference to yourself and to those you influence. But the most powerful words don’t come out of your mouth accidentally.

Find your powerful words–on purpose–with Toastmasters!

I also have made a short version of my Toastmaster story as a Toastmaster Testimonial Tract that other Toastmasters can use as a template.

Toastmaster Testimonial Tract

Toastmasters Clubs Build Conversation Skills, Too!

I recently received an email “interview” from a freelance writer who is planning on writing an article on conversation skills for The Toastmaster magazine.  The second question asked me to comment on how Toastmasters has helped me in conversation skills.  I had never really thought that out much before!  I realize, yet again, the great benefit I have received through my involvement with Toastmasters.  Please comment to add something about how Toastmasters has helped your conversation skills!

1: How important do you believe conversational skills are to the average Toastmaster, or the average businessman or woman, for that matter? Why?

Conversational skills are critically important to the average business person, especially if they don’t want to remain “average.”  From small talk that can lead the way to more profitable “big talk,” to the nuances of body language and facial expressions, to the more difficult conversations, in-person communication skills can still make-or-break many business or personal opportunities. Technology-enabled communications (texting, email, social media postings, and even video conferencing) cannot completely eliminate face-to-face conversation, nor should they!

2: Has Toastmasters helped you with your conversational skills? Please explain how.

Toastmasters has helped me improve my conversational skills in many ways:

  1. Table topics cause me to think quickly on my feet and come up with a response.  This impromptu speaking has direct application to conversation.  Often someone asks us a question and we need to respond right away.
  2. Prepared speeches give me both an opportunity to work on material that I might later use in conversation and also a chance to practice it out loud and receive feedback.
  3. Prepared speeches specifically give me an opportunity to work on stories that I can tell later in conversations.  Nothing engages like a story!
  4. Evaluations require that I listen carefully.  Listening is really the greater part of conversations.  Or, at least it should be!
  5. Participation in club and district events, and helping prepare for events, requires lots of communication with lots of different people.  Toastmasters gives me practical applications for conversation.
  6. Learning from other people’s speeches.  A few years ago, one of my club members gave a speech on dealing with mentally ill people in which he talked about the LEAP method (Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner).  I started using that method right away with my teenagers in our conversations and it took our conversations from frustrating to friendly!

 3: What do you think is the most important thing to remember about communication in social settings? This might be making eye contact, having something noteworthy to say, expressing an interest in the other person, etc. 

You just never know where a conversation might take you, even in social settings!  My husband,  many of my best friends and even some business opportunities have come from conversations in social settings!  In a social setting, I think the most important thing to do is to “click” with the other person, because that’s really the only way you will open up the doors to potential friendships, romantic relationships or even business opportunities.  The easiest way to initially “click” with another person is to find “common ground” so that they can see the similarities between you both.  Many studies have shown that people who see you as like themselves will like you more!  How this happens, practically, is to first be engaging by being pleasant, by making eye contact and finding something to say that leads toward common ground.  It could be a comment about the event or the food.  And then, following up the comment with a question.  Here’s a blog I wrote about the “Observe—Transition—Ask”  technique.

 4: How important is it, in effective communication, to listen? Do you have any advice about how to do this?  

If you want to have a conversation, you have to listen!  You can communicate without listening, but that won’t happen in conversation!  In order to have the back-and-forth that is required in a conversation, you have to listen for the content and mood that your partner is conveying.  That means listening not only to the words that are said, but also to the tone of voice, and to use your “eyes” to listen for the non-verbal aspects of communication (body language, eye contact, facial expressions).  Then, as you take in the information, you can use it to further the conversation, even if only reflecting back what you heard, to let the other person know you understood (e.g. “It sounds like . . .So, what you’re saying is . . .).

Also, if you are listening carefully, you can ask questions that connect with what was just said.  The biggest tip to listening is to focus completely on the other person.  Don’t be thinking about what you will be doing later or how you can fit in that story you’re dying to tell.  Give them your full attention, lean in a little, face them and look them in the eye while they are talking.  Ask questions to get them to clarify or restate things to help you understand better. Then you can also restate or rephrase what they said to enhance your understanding.  It’s OK to ask them to rephrase something in a way that is easier for you to “listen” to.  If you really need a visual to understand something—ask the other person to sketch a picture.  If you need something more concrete, ask for an example.  You don’t have to be a passive listener in conversation!

5: Please add anything you would like with regard to learning or improving conversational skills.

Because so many people have a hearing loss (my husband is hearing impaired, and a Toastmaster), I feel it is important to realize that you may need to modify your conversation skills so that you can have effective communication with the hearing impaired.  I made up an acronym FACE for some tips in talking with the hearing impaired.

F: Face the other person so that he or she can see your lips and facial expressions.

A: Adjust volume and rate.  You may need to speak slightly louder and slightly slower than normal (but don’t over do this, or it distorts speech)

C: Clarify.  If your hearing-impaired conversation partner asks you to repeat something, try rephrasing in different words.  You may need to write down complicated instructions.

E: Empathize.  If you start to become frustrated, imagine what it might be like to converse while wearing earplugs.  It’s not easy.

Note:  I speak professionally on interpersonal communication and have written 2 related books:

 Small Talk Big Results:  Chit Chat Your Way to Success (the FACE and LEAP acronyms are in the book)

Perfect Phrases for IceBreakers (coauthor)