This rule of texting etiquette is ruining how we talk to each other

As an MIT professor who studies social connectivity, Sherry Turkle is endlessly interested in how Kids These Days communicate with one another.

Her grand takeaway: They really don’t, and when they do, it sucks.

According to college students that Turkle interviewed, group conversation proceeds under a guiding “rule of three.”

“In a conversation among five or six people at dinner,” Turkle wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone.”

If fewer than three people are listening and you check your phone, you risk coming off as rude and self-obsessed. If three or more are listening, however, the speaker can feel adequately heard, granting you social licence to attend to those nagging vibrations in your pocket.

On the fly, nobody may get offended by the rule of three — after all, the whole point is that three listeners should guarantee no one feels neglected.

But Turkle claims the side effects are far more insidious. “Conversation is kept relatively light, on topics where people feel they can drop in and out,” she writes.

Cell phones have long been blamed for the apparent drop off in younger generations’ ability to connect with other people.

With increasing reason to live inside the pool of light in your palm, the physical world loses its lustre. Snapchat trumps chit chat. Facebook expedites snooping. Twitter and Google can deliver information faster than your long-winded relative.

“We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time,” Turkle says, “but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”

But it’s precisely that kind of intimate experience, in which people must pause to mull over ideas in their heads before responding, Turkle argues, that real meaning is delivered. “In these conversations,” she says, “we learn who we are.”

The Information Age leaves people with no shortage of opinions. We should give ourselves the chance to discuss them.

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