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We have to get used to people interrupting conversations to check their phones

Human conversation is shifting gears and people are going to continue to mix online and offline communication - even if it seems rude.

Do you think you could go cold turkey and not check your mobile phone during your next social outing? Are you feeling a little nervous at the mere thought of it?

We have developed a deep love for online connection. We're constantly texting, online chatting, updating our status, blogging, emailing and the like; and it seems for many of us, old-school face-to-face talking just isn't enough any more. Recent figures from Pew Research indicate that about 90 per cent of people admit to checking their mobile at their last social encounter. And 82 per cent of those say that they felt the conversation deteriorated afterwards. In my own research, many children tell me that their mum or dad are always on their mobile, and it's difficult to get their attention. 

Texting turns 20

20 years after Neil Papworth sent the very first text message, which was 'Merry Christmas', mobile users show no sign of slowing down their textual activity any time soon.

Human conversation is shifting gear. We want to be with others and we want to be online at the same time; we don't want limits on either of them. I've seen parents checking their mobile in between pushing their child on a swing. A mum told me that she takes her mobile into the bathroom when bathing her young child; she alternates between checking Facebook and playing with her daughter. How many couples have you seen at restaurants tapping away on their mobile instead of talking with each other?  

Many would lament lost conversations, the missed opportunities to fully engage with children and friends. And they have a very real point. Physically talking with someone allows us to consider body language, the tone of their words, to respond to the verbal and social messiness of being in the same room with people you know. These are important aspects for developing a relationship with others.

Texting in the cinema during the film is a big no-no - but that could be about to change.
Texting in the cinema during the film is a big no-no - but that could be about to change. Photo: Glenn Hunt

But online communication can offer something that we can't get offline. Part of building close relationships with people comes from sharing things about ourselves - our day-to-day lives, our worries, our goals. Research shows 68 per cent of people state that sharing things about themselves is easier when it's mediated through the screen because it allows them to present a better sense of who they are. The internet acts as a space where we reflect on and shape our social skills. It also provides a useful buffer when we want to connect but aren't feeling particularly sociable, or when we find it challenging face-to-face.

The heart of the conflict is not whether online is better than offline, but when they happen at the same time. Having a text take precedence over your own physical conversation can be annoying. As humans we expect our physical conversation to be hierarchically superior to anything that might arrive in an inbox.  

More complex consequences arise for a relationship if we keep choosing online over the human. My friend acknowledged that she had a wonderful connection with her new boyfriend but complained that he couldn't resist checking his online conversations. He explained they were just quick, sporadic bursts. Her dilemma however was that she was only getting bits and pieces of conversations with him. Over time, her emotions moved from irritation to feeling insulted. Their relationship is now over. 

Many call for a digital detox with the aim of getting everyone off their device and back to traditional talk. However this is only a symptomatic, short-term response.  We might be able to manage it for one day but very few would consider giving up their online conversations altogether - it would be unrealistic to do so.

The fact is we need to consider our vulnerabilities and our strengths and redesign how we relate to each other long term. 

Technology is highly enticing and it's always-on nature means that it has novelty and distraction for us to escape the demands of physically talking with others any time we want. Some describe this as the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) however this term can be a scapegoat. We are no longer the kid in the toy store with something new. Technology has been around for years now and it's time to get over the excitement of having a phone.

We have a device that has constant and limitless conversation on it. It doesn't hold back if you're in a meeting or at a funeral. It doesn't read your body language or contextual cues to know that you're having a meaningful conversation with your partner and it's a bad time for you to be on your phone.

Having a network of online conversations that thread through our offline world requires us to work out how to manage them while still being mentally present in the here and now. We need to be in control of our communication, and purposefully be aware and respectful of those we are communicating with, offline and online. We need to assess our own personal hierarchy of social activity, and identify when online communication should take precedence and when it should not. Without this strategic reflection we can't have it all.

Dr Joanne Orlando is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University.

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