Textual healing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 January, 2007, 12:00am

Our breakneck electronic workplace is eroding our ability to talk and listen. So says communications expert Sonya Hamlin in her new book, How to Talk So People Listen, suggesting in so many words that we may all wind up as blithering idiots.

Hamlin's argument rings true. Electronic communications could turn us into a race of dumb-clucks because we all need to keep practising the art of conversation - spend a week alone and discover how hard it is to get your mind and mouth back into gear and spark up a discussion. I speak as someone who works from home and rarely makes phone calls, which must affect my ability to meld one sentence with another.

But I have an excuse for my Trappist behaviour, namely impatience with the time that telephone dialogues consume as digression after digression unravels - often just to hide embarrassment and fill silences. If I never become entangled in another voice telephone conversation I doubt I'll miss the experience.

This is all the more true since I text just about everyone I know, despite - or because of - the exacting 160-character limit, which drove one newspaper to set up an SMS haiku competition. Even if it contains mangled prose peppered with daft emoticons, receiving a text is an alluring moment and all the more fun for the way it's announced by a discreet cheep or throb in your pocket. I so much prefer that kind of alert to the nagging wail of a landline call.

SMS messages beat calls to your mobile phone, too, because nine times out of 10, especially in a city such as Hong Kong, you cannot hear what's being said. You have to shout, making everyone around want to wrest the phone from your hand and stomp on it.

Discreet and discrete, texted information is perfect for making arrangements. It means you know exactly where you are and need to be; nothing is liable to be lost in translation. What's more, texting can be enthralling. In London, especially, you see people everywhere smiling at their glowing screens in solipsistic mobile-phone reverie as their thumbs instinctively react to events.

The communication adds as much to our lives as e-mail and Wikipedia. Nonetheless, it has one fatal flaw that almost makes me want to decommission my mobile - an outrageous idea in Hong Kong, which has 8 million mobile-phone subscribers, more than the city's total population.

The rub is its ability to inspire that dangerous, deranged application known as 'tequila texting'. That phrase, itself imbued with classic SMS compactness, means a drunken missive to an old significant other or would-be squeeze. Typically, the tequila text contains some heavy, regrettable sentiment such as a declaration of love. Or it may just be a 'hi' that triggers complications.

Sound familiar? We've all unleashed an SMS that should never have made the leap from thought to digital dispatch. If you haven't, you will, because the temptation can be overpowering when your brain is as fogged up as a bathroom mirror. A few quick taps with your thumb or stylus and whoosh.

The sense of release soon gives way to embarrassment or even shame. To stop yourself falling into the trap you need a personal assistant to advise you, the way a slave would whisper in a conquering Roman general's ear: 'Remember you must die.'

If you do not have a PA to wrest your mobile from your hand, take personal action: delete the number of that person who plays on your mind like a catchy but trashy chart hit. Do it now, before you wind up looking idiotic.