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Issue Date: October 2012


Thumb Talk


Marsha McGregor

I’m what’s known as a late adopter. To the endless amusement of my family, I have yet to figure out how to work TiVo. I still marvel at the fax. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered how much I love texting.

I armed myself with text messages as a way to stay in touch with the moving targets otherwise known as teenage offspring. Clumsy at first, I'm all thumbs now.

When I hear a double "ping" on my cellphone, it's like a secret code, signaling a two-part message from a friend whose text presence reassures me as if her hand is clasped in mine. In the absence of face-to-face visits, a few of my friends still find regular sustenance from the sound of each other's voices. Others are like me, better nurtured by words tapped out in thoughtful silence.

I love a good long phone conversation now and then, but more often, talking on the phone exhausts me. I've learned that texting allows connection without intrusion or inconvenience, unlike the telephone, which, as Miss Manners herself recently pointed out, "has a very rude propensity to interrupt people."

Texting, on the other hand, allows a quick message of shared joy, like Awesome race! sent to my daughter's closest friend when she ran her personal best at a cross-country meet. In the midst of a wild work day, a simple How's everything going exchanged between my husband and I can short-circuit stress like a cleansing breath.

Applied correctly, texting is more discreet and mannerly than hand signals: I'm ready 2 go, r u? When it comes to small bits of data that require urgent exchange — I'm at the back entrance or 2% or skim? or You said he was smokin' hot! FALSE — texting shields innocent bystanders from collateral assault by the minutiae of strangers' daily lives.

I've been spared frustration and worry countless times because of a text: Practice ran way late home soon. And texting takes the telephone chain to new heights, without the alarming jar of constantly ringing phones. When a friend was flown by helicopter to University Hospitals with a suspected aneurism, another friend instantly alerted the rest of us with a group text. Prayers and updates flew back and forth throughout the night. Those brief missives, the patient's husband noted after his wife was stabilized, were a steady pulse of comfort for him and his son during short breaks from their bedside vigil.

In tragic situations, a text can act as life preserver, tossed across the ether to loved ones dog-paddling against despair. Ask the parents who received IM OK messages from their students at Chardon High School the day bullets shattered lives. With each frantic keystroke, hope was rescued anew.

As a form of fair fighting, texting can avert high drama. I've had arguments with my teenagers via four or five cranky but carefully considered thumbed missives. The geographic separation and time delay in dialogue that texting affords (read, pause, compose pithy response, send) helps eliminate the more epic gestures of slammed doors and yelling that can happen face-to-face. After a little digital venting, there's im sorry. long day. Then the low-wattage light of absolution, blinking back

It's odd how simultaneously distant and intimate texting can be, its dual nature a bane and blessing. Like electricity, fire and television, our newest technologies are powerful beyond measure. Like any force of immense power, they can be harnessed for harm or good.

Outlawing texting while driving is a no-brainer (and Ohio's new law, which isn't a primary offense for those over 18, merely gums at the problem instead of clamping teeth on it). But alarmists are making an easy, flawed jump in logic: Texting while driving kills, so texting is bad. Others blame a range of ills — from carpal tunnel syndrome, to a disconnect from the natural world, to the breakdown of formal language — on our text obsession.

Yet Columbia University linguist John McWhorter recently argued in a New York Times op-ed that texting and email are not writing at all, but "fingered speech," with a conversation's "brevity, improvisation and in-the-moment quality." Surely, implores McWhorter, "we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers."

If I was on Facebook, I would "friend" McWhorter. Alas, I am a staunch Facebook holdout for a dozen reasons. But I have embraced the brave new world of talking with my thumbs.

As a species, we adopt and adapt. My parents had to get over Jimi Hendrix, miniskirts and long hair on boys. Their parents had to make peace with the outrageous noise and reckless speed of the Model T.

To those still wringing their hands about texting: Calm down already. We too inhabit a strange new land now. Better put our digits to good use and learn to speak the native language.


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