Gen why: retreating to text

Ross Paull |

I’ve got a Millennial (a.k.a Gen Y) and a Generation Z (born in the late 90s and later) living at home. Both are highly sociable and plugged into a smorgasbord of social media. However, they’re always tapping or swiping their Smartphones rather than speaking to anyone.

Gen Y & Z (let’s refer to both groups as Millennials, for the sake of this article) no longer use the telephone to have a general chat, so out of curiosity I recently asked them why they’re uncomfortable with real time verbal engagement and what’s behind the noticeable drift (more like a retreat!) amongst their peers to text-based communication.

Both generations seem to be fearful of spontaneous conversation, which seems odd given their self-confidence, innovativeness and adaptability. Here’s what I managed to glean.

Buying time

When your phone rings you don’t know what the call is about or what you may have to respond to; whereas, when someone texts, you know exactly what you’re dealing with before you even start typing.

Telephone calls are eschewed because they are ambiguous and spontaneous. When pausing to think, Gen-Y feel as if they’re putting themselves on the back foot.

TEXT = Time to read and decide
CALL = No reaction time

In the context of social engagement, text buys time for the “white lie” if needed. On the phone, one may also face peer pressure and manipulation. People tend not to beg via text whereas a phone call amplifies persuasion possibilities such as “…please, please…” 

In the old days, unless we had an Executive Assistant to act as a gatekeeper, we were all forced to pick up a ringing phone because we didn’t know who it was. It may have been an urgent matter, right?

Caller ID has allowed Gen-Y to self-screen and become his or her own Executive Assistant allowing them to shy away from the trickier verbal jousting that requires one to think on ones feet.

Confidence and safety

In real time verbal exchanges, there seems to be a feeling of awkwardness in being unable to immediately articulate what they want to say so the phone is used only for time critical communication.

My youngest (Gen-Z), tends to, in her words, “freak out” when her phone rings and can’t cope with being put on the spot due to the “fear of saying something silly, being tongue-tied and unable to express the things I want to say well”. 

There’s greater confidence in clear expression when texting; given the room to change which allows them to feel safer and more confident. 

Keeping it arms-length

Here are some of the key takeaways from my straw poll: 

  • It’s easier to read and there’s more time to think and process with text-based communication.
  • Millennials have less experience and confidence in dealing with real time interaction so it’s more comfortable to retreat into text.
  • Text allows Millennials to convey what they want to say in the best way to project a good image and not be judged. 
  • Millennials want everyone to like them and worry about offending anyone.

It seems that the social media popularity markers are reinforcing arms-length communication. Indeed, it rewards it with the thumbs up.

Sidestepping conflict

Gen-Y runs a mile from the so-called “difficult conversations” as they’re unpracticed in expressing their underlying interests (what motivates them; the “why” question).

One comment was that “manipulative personalities tend to use the phone” which implies a perception that negotiation is a form of manipulation. This indicates a weak internal locus of control* in that Millennials don’t see themselves as masters of their own fate.

In other words, it’s easier to believe that Millennials are victims being taken advantage of rather than working on improving their discussion skills with a friend hassling them to attend an event. It seems that communication technology has in fact disrupted the mindset required to negotiate constructively.

Click-on, click-off

What is needed here are innovative teaching approaches that challenge and advance mutual understanding. Let’s empower the Millennials to gain the muscle memory and I’m thinking here of whom else but Mr. Miyagi from the 1980’s movie ‘The Karate Kid’ with his memorable line of “wax-on, wax-off”.

What better way to instill the capacity to learn negotiation skills than playing to Gen-Y’s digital strengths and harness online tools like Guided Resolution’s as the metaphorical wax that Mr. Miyagi successfully used to teach Daniel LaRusso.

Thirty-four years after ‘The Karate Kid’, the Millennials can instead click-on and click-off.

* The degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.