Text messaging, online interaction and mobile media have already transformed the ways we communicate. The Pew Research Center reports that 56% of Americans now own smartphones. On an average day, 36.6 billion messages are sent via SMS-text message or chat apps like iMessage and WhatsApp. By 2014, that number is expected to surpass 50 billion messages. An increasing number of us spend most of our days using some form of electronic communication to manage workplace and personal relationships.
At the same time, few things can ruin a relationship faster than a miss-timed text or a message taken out of context. A report from Forbes, candidly entitled “Don’t Include Me On a Group Text Message Unless You’re Trying to Punish Me,” reminds us that the rules for proper e-communication etiquette are changing almost as quickly as the technology itself. Because communication technology holds such a prominent place in our daily lives, it’s more important than ever to consider how text messaging, email, and other mobile media are also changing how we build and maintain relationships.
When it comes to the upside of communication technology, some of the most promising aspects involve improving collaboration and strengthening existing relationships. Initially, consumers are making good on professional and educational technologies that allow for increased collaboration. Three of the biggest providers of Cloud technology – Dropbox, iCloud, and SkyDrive – report a combined 675 million users. Google’s new(ish) Drive provides not only online storage, but also a platform for synchronous document editing across remote locations.
These types of technologies in addition to text messaging, instant messaging, and video-conferencing have created increased opportunities for convenient collaboration across time and space. In doing so, human communication experts argue that workplace relationships are strengthened in several key ways:
- Co-workers develop close relationships that some describe are as comfortable as friendships. Text messaging, instant messaging and social networking at work allow employees convenience and efficiency in their communication, so these relationships develop rather quickly.
- Employees also enjoy increased task interdependence, in that they can use communication technology to manage each other’s availability. When individuals are collaborating on a project, sometimes a quick text message or Google chat is appropriate to answer technical questions, without getting bogged down with the small talk that sometimes accompanies a face-to-face interaction.
- Finally, employees often create a sense of community around their online collaborations. Communication technology simply brings more people to the table, allowing individuals to grow their social networks and online communities in ways previously limited by time and space. Such features are important in an expanding global marketplace.
These benefits of communication technologies are also evident in personal relationships. In an increasingly competitive and unpredictable economy, more families are living apart for employment purposes. This rise includes not only extended families, but also spouses and their children. As such, text messaging, videoconferencing, and mobile media are often vital technologies that families need to keep in touch. Additional benefits include:
- A strengthening of existing relationships. Whereas text messaging is not always the most effective way to initiate and form a relationship, mobile communication devices help existing bonds stick together.
- Combatting loneliness. One of the biggest risks that long-distance relationships face is loneliness, and videoconferencing, in particular, helps to alleviate the burdens of maintaining relationships across great distances.
As more and more devices, programs, and platforms are developed, it is important to take a practical and somewhat cautiously optimistic approach to this topic – especially because of the downsides of our growing reliance on communication technologies. The drawbacks also focus on workplace and interpersonal relationship maintenance.
As workplaces become more connected and collaborative, there is a growing concern among organizational scholars that we’re becoming too plugged in. Employees are expected to do more with fewer resources, a phenomenon that Communication scholar Sharon Kleinman called the “culture of efficiency.” Communication technologies are a part of this culture, because they are believed to help speed up several of our workplace interactions. However, there are consequences for this emphasis on efficiency. Colleagues have grown to expect immediate responses to a text message. Employees are expected to respond to emails and text messages after work hours. These changes in communication practices also place significant burdens on workplace relationships.
- Managers and supervisors now assume that their employees are “always on.” This can lead to work-family spillover, where individuals take time away from their personal relationships to deal with their workplace relationships – often without compensation.
- The assumption of “always on” also increases the likelihood for employee burnout or other productivity problems – especially when individuals spend more and more of their days answering text messages and emails than doing the work that they’ve been hired to do.
- Finally, if communication technologies have made workplace relationships more like friendships, then missing a text or failing to respond to an email immediately can prompt a much harsher reaction from our co-workers.
The workplace is not the only space where communication technologies often make our relationships more challenging. On an interpersonal level, text messaging, email, and videoconferencing do keep us more connected; however, they are not a magical fix for all relationship maintenance problems. Psychology Professor Mark Becker from Michigan State has argued that media multi-tasking, or using multiple communication technologies at once, is directly linked to increases in anxiety and depression. Communication scholar Lisa Stafford outlines some additional downsides that we might encounter when it comes to communication technology and personal relationships:
- A loss of privacy and control. Individuals have little control over the texts or emails that they send, pictures that they post, or other communications that they put on the Internet. Those messages can be forwarded by well-meaning friends or family members in ways that the original sender never intended.
- Paradox of constant connection. Text messaging can help romantic partners stay close even when they are apart; however, some partners get annoyed when their significant other interrupts them during work or time with their friends.
Developing Your Tech Etiquette
When it comes to managing the upsides and downsides of communication technology, there is no lack of tips for text messaging or rules for relationships. The most important lesson, however, is to develop your own tech etiquette. Here are a few suggestions:
- Be mindful with your messages. In other words, think before you text. Think about how and when the person on the other end will receive your message, as well as any follow-up messages (e.g., be wary of tech features like group messaging, because they often lead to unnecessary disruptions in the receiver’s day).
- Take safety seriously. No matter how good your privacy settings are, if you don’t want something public, then don’t post it to the Internet. Additionally, be careful mixing your work and home texts. The Supreme Court has ruled that your employer has the right to view any text messages sent from a work phone – no matter how private you think they are.
- Formality is ok. LOL, SMH, and other abbreviated text-speak are not for everyone – there is nothing more awkward than a well-meaning grandmother who thinks LOL means lots of love. Chat apps like iMessage and WhatsApp have taken over the market from SMS text messaging, meaning that text messengers can now squeeze in many more characters in a single text. And it’s ok – preferred even, when it comes to business and professional settings – to ditch the text-speak and start using full sentences and proper grammar.
- Turn it off. Give your brain, your anxiety levels, and your ego a break and turn off the technology every once in a while. The world will go on if you miss a text message. Some industry professionals even suggest declaring “email bankruptcy,” (e.g., kicking up your out-of-office notification to tell senders to re-send their message next week, because you’re not reading anything this week). It’s more important for you to pay attention to other relationship maintenance practices that get lost when we rely on too much technology. Balancing our use of technology with other forms of communication – like a good old face-to-face conversation – is an important part of managing healthy relationships.
How do you think communication technology has changed your relationships?
This Article was written by Marianne LeGreco, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on organizational and health communication, and she has published research on using communication technology to assist with community-based initiatives.