Voices | Bella English

Put to the text

By Bella English
August 17, 2009

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There’s nothing like teenagers to make you feel old. Who knew that leaving a voice mail for your kids was out of style? And now even e-mail seems to be going the way of the pay phone: Why e-mail when you can text and tweet?

My son, who is away working at a camp this summer, has strictly directed his father and me not to leave him any voice mail messages. Why? Because then he has to go to the trouble of checking the message, which means he has to punch in a few numbers and . . . wait for the message.

“Wait’’ is the operative word. In this era of instantaneous communication, waiting is simply not done.

“I can see that I’ve got a missed call and I’ll call you back when I can,’’ grumps my son. So now I call and hang up. Sometimes I get a call back, sometimes I don’t. I don’t kid myself: I know they screen their calls, and a call from Mom isn’t always or even often at the top of their list.

Your kids may not call or send e-mails, but they will text. So I recently began texting. But now my son says my messages are too long. And no one uses complete sentences - or even complete words - or punctuation, or capital letters. This is difficult for an aging English major to accept.

Still, text messaging is the safest way to ensure a response from your kids, even if it is monosyllabic. Mom to Megan (who had been traveling): “Are you home yet?’’

Megan: “No.’’

Mom: “What time are you due in?’’

Megan: “7:30.’’

Mom: “Please call safe arrival.’’

Megan (later): “Safe.’’

Though many parents get text-messaging to alleviate our worries, it actually heightens our fears when we don’t get a response. Where could our kids possibly be? Were they kidnapped by aliens? Eaten by sharks? Hit by a drunk driver?

Many of us middle-agers are also guilty of writing long e-mails. Apparently, anything over three sentences is considered an act of hostility. Pity my Uncle Mac, 85, a man of many words, who still sends lengthy hand-written letters - and recently joined Facebook. He simply cannot understand that you lose your audience - particularly grandchildren, who grew up in the Age of Abbreviation - if you write messages that fill screen after screen.

“If one has little or nothing to say, why say anything?’’ he says, with uncharacteristic brevity.

And when’s the last time you saw anyone under 25 actually engage in cursive handwriting? They don’t know how. But they’ve been fluent typists since elementary school.

As for abbreviations, I understand when my kids use them, but it’s silly when I do. Who can forget Congressman Mark Foley’s pathetic attempts to appear young and hip when he sent sexually explicit instant messages to an underage boy? They were rife with “lol’s’’ and other abbreviations, along with misspellings and lack of punctuation. Totally awesome, dude! Not. (See what I mean?)

So, in the past decade, we’ve gone from letters to e-mails to text messages; from phone conversations to voice mail messages to “missed call.’’ What’s lost in all of this, besides the English language? Conversations: dialogue, complete with laughter or tears or any kind of emotion. Instead, we’ve got emoticons. :(

Now that we’re more connected than ever, we’re actually less connected than ever.

A friend recently gave me a funny book called “How Not to Act Old: 185 Ways to Pass for Phat, Sick, Hot, Dope, Awesome, or at Least Not Totally Lame.’’ The No. 1 way, according to the author, Pamela Redmond Satran: Stop using e-mail.

She obviously has kids.

The Silent Generation was a term applied to those born between 1925 and 1942, encompassing both the Great Depression and World War II. They were said to be quiet, serious, and hard-working but generally apolitical and indifferent. (With notable exceptions such as Gloria Steinem and Martin Luther King Jr.)

But if Millennials become any more minimalist as far as communicating goes, they might just wrest that title away. In Satran’s book, Rule No. 77 for not acting old is “Don’t Fear the Silence.’’ Young people, she says, use silence to mean all kinds of things: “I hate you, for instance. Or I’m not sure what to tell you, so I won’t tell you anything. Or simply I’m busy, or I’m sleeping, or I’m distracted. It’s hard to say, so I won’t say anything.’’ Her advice is to turn the tables on your silent young person: “Don’t get mad, just get silent.’’ Inevitably, your silence will evoke a response.

It may be just a quick How R U? But it’s better than nothing. :)