Speculations on Mobile Technology and Influences on Social Etiquette
If it hasn't already been asked, I think a great research question would be: "in what ways have mobile communication technologies influenced face-to-face social etiquette?"
About 5 or 6 years ago, as the ubiquity of text messaging was beginning to encroach upon our standard modes of modern communication, my social circle was among the early adopters. At work, at the bar, or any other place of gathering, it was not unusual for any of us to be texting during conversations. Certainly, there were some implicit social rules that accompanied this, differing somewhat per individual. For example, when I used to live with my cousin, it would not be unusual for either of us to be sending and receiving text messages while we had a casual conversation going between us. Yet, I had a friend in my Masters program who found it rather rude if I texted while out for our weekly, group, post-class Applebees drink sessions. She would tease me rather than reprimand me, but the message was still clear: she found it rude. Yet, I am not sure our other friend in the group did.
The debate as to the acceptability of maintaining a textual conversation during face-to-face ones is best left to be decided between those individuals engaging in them. I have come to try to avoid doing both at the same time, though at least once in the last year a friend called me out for texting while I was talking to him and his other friend in the same room.
Of course, there is also the question of whether or not it is inconsiderate to maintain multiple conversations across media. Certainly, I can think back on times when I was composing email, while responding to instant messages, and, at the same time, conversing via text messages. Likely, I wasn't doing any one of those things well, but rather a half-assed job at multiple tasks.
With the wall of invisibility between these modes of communication, the only clue to my virtual conversational partners that I was multitasking was probably the gap in time between responses, and a higher-than-usual occurrence of typos. Yet, as a 33 year-old, I was not born among these modes of communication. Rather, they came to me after I had been socialized into my culture and conversational etiquette had been learned. Thus, I think among folks my age, there is a (somewhat) subconscious mandate to ensure that the interlocutor at the other end of a conversation feels at the center of attention. Taking turns is important, and simultaneous texting while talking may or may not be preceived as a thread to that attention, so long as the attention is maintained at an acceptable level.
But what about those who have grown up and developed their social patterns engulfed in ubiquitous mobile and textual communication technologies? Recently, my roommate has begun dating a girl who is 12 years younger than me. On a regular basis, I can be having a face-to-face conversation with him, or even be playing a video game with him, and she will begin her own conversation with him at the same time. While it first struck me as annoyingly socially unaware, I have begun to wonder if it is not a generational thing. When you develop your social skills surrounded by technologies that not only engender, but promote multiple simultaneous conversations, does that practice carry over into face-to-face conversations? In 20 years, might social conventions no longer deem it rude to interrupt one real-life discussion with another?
I certainly hope not! And the odds are that water-cooler conversations will not likely be reduced to snippets of peoples' voices talking over and at one another. However, I suspect that the implicit social rules of face-to-face conversation are undergoing some subtle transformations, which may become less subtle as those who grew up with texting technologies become adults. Ten years ago I earned my Bachelor's degree in Communication Arts. It is truly unfathomable how much may have changed since then, not simply in regard to technological channels, but rather the interpersonal ramifications of those channels.