The Civility of Texting

Incivility matters to both Millennials, GenXers, and Boomers but they don’t see it the same way.

A thirty-something colleague was in the midst of a focused conversation with her early 20s graduate student—it was the first time they had met—when the student said, “Just a minute!” She pulled her phone out of her bag, read the text, typed a quick reply, replaced the phone, looked at her prof, and said, “OK.”

It was not OK. The prof was offended that the student would take a text message in the middle of a conversation. It wasn’t only because it was a student taking the text. If her husband had interrupted a conversation to take a text, she would have been offended. The interruption implies that her conversational partner considers her to be unimportant, certainly less important than whoever has sent a text message.

The way people use communication technologies says something about civility. What exactly it says can vary a lot, depending who is part of the conversation. The ages of the two people are an important part of the story. The professor, solidly in GenX territory, sees text messages on ubiquitous mobile phones as a late addition to her communication world that is dominated by voice, either face-to-face or over the phone. The student, as a Millennial, has remained in constant contact with her peers through text messages even more than voice since her pre-teen years. For one, responding to a text message is interrupting a conversation that takes precedence. Text messages are on the same level as emails, a defining feature of which is that they can be read at one’s leisure, i. e., when you’re not doing something important. For the other, text messages are part of the substratum of reality. They don’t interrupt any more than breathing interrupts the conversation. They just happen and their currency is right now, calling for an immediate response.

Not all Millennials would subscribe to this view of the world and not all GenXers would be offended in this circumstance. But there is a persistent difference in this direction in their values about the role of technology in their lives.

A small conference in Rovereto, Italy brought researchers together to talk about aging, generations, and the development of careers across a lifetime. Reflecting on civility and incivility emphasized the importance of developing sensitivity to the values and sensitivities that people bring to their interactions with others.

How do you fit technology into your conversations? Are you ever offended? Have you ever accidently offended someone?


  1. As a Tekkie (nominal) GenX’er, a concerned texter can use the Caller ID/custom notifications of most hardware to identify high-importance SMS senders by a distinct tone, and know when to ask their conversational partner “This is important, is it okay if I step away for a minute?”. We have a lot of good NEW habits to develop.

  2. Since I`m tryng to develop new communication skills, I still consider that technologies must be in second place in a conversation. As a teacher, I found that my students are loosing vocabulary, they cannot keep a conversation for over 2 or 3 minutes and they easily cut a conversation as if we were in a chat conversation. Therefore, if technologies doesn’t affect directly the interaction, they affect how people hear each other and it is a special issue in civility.

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