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From Talk to Text: How Mobile Communication Makes Us Forget Social Skills

By: Katelyn Six, Section Editor for Bloc[k] Beat (

When it comes to conversing with strangers in public, most people prefer to go about their own business while keeping to themselves. What are people doing while waiting in the grocery line? Certainly not talking to the person behind or in front of them. Think about what happens when your ride the elevator. Everyone stands facing the door, feverishly looking to their cell phones in order to avoid making eye contact with another elevator passenger. And if someone did try to strike up a conversation while approaching the next floor? Well, there’s a good chance you’d probably look at them as if they had two heads! Basically, it’s rare for anyone, especially a student, to stop texting and start talking…and I don’t mean via Skype.

In the article titled “Mobile Communication and Civil Society: Linking Patterns and Places of Use to Engagement with Others in Public,” the authors, Scott W. Campbell and Nojin Kwak, prove that there is more to this anti-engagement theory than meets the eye. With new waves of communication, such as social or mobile communication, there appears to be more opportunities for people to converse with others, particularly strangers. This article fleshes out “how mobile communication affects the frequency with which one engages in conversation with strangers in public settings,” in order to interpret not just the locations and places a cellular phone is used, but in what ways individuals are using their mobile devices in public settings. The goal is to contend with the notion that these emergent technologies, which have seeped into everyday life, may inhibit the sparking of spontaneous conversations with strangers due to a preoccupation with our mobile devices.

First, the study reveals a shift from balancing being connected with intimates (friends and family) and being socially present among strangers. For example, social conduct used to command that individuals socialize or participate in small talk in public settings like in the grocery store line or while waiting for the train. Before, individuals opened themselves up to conversations with strangers because there was no preoccupation with outside connections via their mobile devices.

Today, a shift toward “absent presence” has made socializing with strangers a virtually obsolete practice. Campbell and Kwak say this phenomenon refers to being socially removed from one’s physical surroundings and others in them through the use of communication technology. These findings suggest that mobile phone usage in public hinders communication with strangers due to disengaged individuals. What’s worse is this newfound communication barrier may lead to civil and social problems as well.

Further, the results of the study show “mobile phone use for coordination and information about news both lead to increased public engagement, whereas relational use of the technology lead to a decrease in talking with new people in public settings,” leading us to believe that these technologies help and hinder different aspects of communication. The study insists that classic forms of media, like the television, along with newly emergent media like the Internet, actually increase communication and have positive effects on civic life, while certain recreational uses have yielded different outcomes. Essentially, the way mobile phones are used determines how much communication between strangers will occur and how great the “absent presence” is. When it comes to using a cell phone to give directions or coordinate daily activities, Campbell and Kwak assert that mass communication is accentuated, whereas when a mobile device is used for “latent use” (i.e., a sense of security), interpersonal communication is often hindered.

In the end, this study explores how emergent mobile communication use stunts conversations with strangers. However, this information also has positive implications. The ways individuals interact with their mobile devices was a stronger indicator of whether social interactions would be positive or negative. When mobile phones were used for news and coordination purposes, civil communication was not hindered; conversely, the opposite was true when individuals used their mobile device as a distraction from strangers or to feel more secure in a public setting.

Essentially, the study finds that “frequent relational use of the technology was associated with fewer conversations with strangers in public,” leading us to speculate that the use of mobile technologies can both foster communication with strangers and also lead to less interaction with strangers depending on the way the device is being used. So, the next time you’re in the grocery line or waiting to catch the bus, try to resist opening up that Flappy Bird app and strike up a quick conversation with someone nearby instead – you might be pleasantly surprised.


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