Some of the companies that make the most popular tech devices would like to hear you talking more.
Last week, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, a new video game console that will expand upon the Xbox 360 Kinect’s ability to do things based on your spoken commands. “Xbox, watch ESPN,” you might tell the thing. Or “Xbox, turn off ‘Halo,’ I need some sleep.” Google is adding voice search to desktop versions of its popular Chrome web browser. And of course, Apple’s voice-command companion Siri continues to answer questions about movie showings and the weather on iPhones and iPads and will find her way into newer automobiles that incorporate the technology.
Leaving a voice mail, dictating a text to a smartphone or recording podcasts are other examples of using our vocal cords with technology. But those are all examples of ways to talk with machines. What about talking to humans?
I’ve wondered a lot lately about whether the amount of talking we do with other people is decreasing. Except for the mad scramble in the morning to get two children to school on time — which involves a lot of repeated commands the kids pretend not to hear — there are times when I find myself barely speaking at all for most of the day. I text, I Tweet, I email. Sometimes, nearly a full day will pass before I realize I haven’t exchanged words with anyone using my actual voice.
When it comes to the way we use mobiles phones, voice calling is clearly declining. According to a study released last year, mobile voice calling has been decreasing for years, since around the time smart phones began to get popular. Two and a half years ago, the popular blog TechCrunch boldly declared in a headline, “The phone call is dead.”
But what about face-to-face contact? Does all the social networking and ease of online communication mean we can connect more efficiently with more people without opening our mouth? Or are we simply avoiding conversations we’d rather not have?
Keri Stephens, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas College of Communications, says she’s found that “A lot of younger people tend to have fewer voice conversations and prefer texting versus face-to-face conversation.”
Some students, she says, think that calling can either lead to an uncomfortable conversation or be considered bothering the person they want to contact. They’d rather send an email than catch someone at a bad time.
“This semester, at least 10 times I got that question from students in my internship class who were interviewing for jobs,” Stephens said. “I said to call that person real-time. They’re choosing to answer the phone. It’s going to save you a lot of time in the long run.”
But, Stephens said, research doesn’t support the idea that the silence of the lips is necessarily a generational thing. She said it may be that our social norms are changing as technology makes it easier to stay in touch in many more ways that are asynchronous (meaning we don’t have to communicate with each other at the same time to get the messages across).
“That’s kind of a shift in terms of our thinking that a face-to-face conversation or a real-time phone call is bothering someone,” Stephens said. While it’s not practical to have every conversation via voice, especially in businesses where travel or scheduling may be involved, Stephens says she worries that some people are relying on technology and taking the no-talking too far.
“You’re seeing people not willing to have a face-to-face conversation that would have freed them up if they had done that,” she said.
Some organizations, she said, have rules to keep technology from getting in the way. For instance, if three emails have been sent back and forth about a topic, it may be time to pick up the phone and have a conversation to resolve things instead of firing more digital notes back and forth.
In some cases, repeating the same information across different formats — say, an email, then a voice mail reminder as well as a text — might seem less redundant than three emails or three texts with the same information.
“We often have to repeat ourselves to people. But if it sounds like we’re repeating ourselves, we tick people off,” Stephens said.
Perhaps it’s just not a matter of avoiding talk. Skype and Google Hangouts, two popular apps that enable video chat, aren’t suffering from a lack of chat participants. Interview podcasts like comedian Mark Maron’s popular “WTF” seem to be reviving the art of long-format conversation as entertainment.
It may be that phone calls and, yes, even some face-to-face conversations, make some feel like they’re trapped without a pause button or escape key. There’s not the same sense of being able to control time and context as checking voice mails later or carving out time to tackle stacked-up emails.
But a live conversation, whether it’s in person with all the facial tics and nonverbal body language, or on the phone with all the pauses and overlapping, can be valuable in so many other ways. There’s an element of surprise and sense of connection that even the most connected technology typically fails to provide.
I probably wouldn’t have discovered over email, for instance, that Stephens is not crazy about Apple’s Siri, which isn’t very helpful to her.
“Try having a name like Keri and talking to a system named Siri,” she said. “She thinks I’m saying ‘Siri.’”
Find technology news, reviews and more at Omar L. Gallaga’s blog, Digital Savant at austin360.com/digitalsavant.