There was a time when correspondence meant registering thoughts in long hand, fluidly, with the cadence of a symphony. The ink flowed in perfect tandem with the emotions and there was a settled, unhurried aspect to expressing oneself in it.
Later, thoughts began to be typed in computers. It diminished the old charm and naivety of articulating one’s ideas by hand, but nevertheless carried the virtue of patience required to draft elaborate missives. The experience of e-mail wasn’t too bad in essence. It was letter-writing in one way, and I still reckon it as the best mode of communication available today.
But somewhere along the way, writing and typing gave way to texting, and we began to see huge shifts in the matter, manner and spirit of corresponding with one another. Instant messaging became both our boon and bane. It gave us the luxury of reaching out in a snap, but it snatched from us the pleasure of holding deep, deliberate conversations.
We picked up new habits that gave us a sense of liberty with regard to our human engagements. We texted a quick ‘hello’ and decided that was sufficient to keep relationships alive. We established extensive networks on the surface, but our affinities became hollow from inside. The line between friends and acquaintances blurred and meaningful parleys became rare.
We learnt to propose, dispose and dismiss with a few quick taps on the phone. As we got sucked into the vortex of instant messages, we lost control over our reason and became reckless with our regular parlance. We became instant informers and impulsive responders, and in the process, we lost our basic courtesies.
Recently, I received an abrupt text from a parent informing me of her decision to stop her child’s classes with me. A single-sentence message over whatsapp that gave no reason nor explanation seemed to be the most irreverent way to convey something as formal as this. It was not an isolated incident where the randomness of texting had trivialized serious communication. I wondered whatever had happened to the conventional ways of notifying people of important things.
There is only one way of interpreting the slapdash behaviour – it is easier to convey uncomfortable messages over a text than a phone or an e-mail. When you can’t say it verbally, text it. When you are afraid of retaliation, text it. When you want to avoid a clumsy encounter, text it. It has become our aid and alibi to deal safely with touchy issues.
While I concede that there is no faster way to reach a person and evoke response than instant messaging these days, I often wonder if this convenience itself has not turned counterproductive. Our impulse and need for instant gratification erodes our judgment and we end up jeopardizing both our good will and reputation by our hasty writing and reaction in an instant message.
Much of what we text are done unthinkingly, and if our words are misconstrued, they can create problems of mammoth proportions. Even innocuous chats can lead to erroneous conclusions, unnecessary heartburns, and extended altercations. Many a good relationship has soured owing to the misalignment between what is said and what is understood. The only saving grace has been the emoji that acts as an appendage to the words and conveys the mood of the sender.
Instancy is a double-edged sword. It facilitates real-time communication, but there is often an underlying current of expectation in it that doesn’t allow the recipient the freedom to respond at his convenience. This compulsion to reply at once is a huge distraction and unless we train ourselves to know what requires urgent attention and what doesn’t, we will become slaves to our devices in the name of ‘staying in touch’.
Nothing can equal a face-to-face conversation, but people have dispersed too far and wide to make frequent visitations possible. And when the busyness of life takes over, and phone calls and e-mails become time-consuming, texting is what helps us stay connected. But in spite of all the perks it throws up to a time-strapped world, there is still something very shallow and superficial about it.
It is very unlikely that scattered, random chats will give us a glimpse of the real person at the other end or will allow us to tell our stories fully. So, let’s meet when we can. Call if time permits. Write leisurely e-mails. And text when it is essential. A chat to me is like fast food. Convenient but not complete. It always leaves something unsaid and unheard.