The cartoon above seems to get straight to the heart of much of Lee Humphrey’s research on social interaction in today’s wireless era. When we interact with others whether face-to-face (as in the case of the man and chicken above), via computer mediated communication (like in Hancock’s study on butler lies in Instant Messaging) or by telephone (as in Humphrey’s study of caller interaction), we are constantly looking for ways to avoid awkward situations, feelings of vulnerability or having our private space violated. This is particularly true when two individuals are dialoguing face to face and are suddenly interrupted because one individual receives a phone call.
This past Sunday I was hard at work assisting an entrepreneur I’ve been in touch with for some time now with some basic product development. My two housemates, Tim and Andy, had just returned from a dinner run with subs and chips and were munching away at their sandwiches while having a heated debate over where we should all go for our next break. Suddenly, Tim received a call from his cousin. The phone conversation lasted approximately five minutes during which time Andy increasingly became more and more uncomfortable. At first he simply gnawed away at his sandwich while pretending to ignore the phone conversation. After a few minutes of restlessly rapping his knuckles on a coffee table Andy flipped on the television set in the room and started watching ESPN until Tim finished his phone call.
Before Tim’ received the call from his cousin, he and Andy were both withs. As such they had been giving their full attention to each other and the debate at hand: vacation plans. Together they had a common identity or purpose which helped them avoid feeling vulnerable despite the fact that they were in a public place. However, the moment Tim received the call from his cousin on his cell phone, the relationship changed. Andy quickly became a single and Tim became a “with” with his cousin who was on the phone.
As a result, Andy began to feel awkward and vulnerable. Because of these feelings of awkwardness and vulnerability, Andy tried very hard to do several things. First, he tried to pretend that he was not listening to Tim’s conversation. This could be seen by the fact that he oriented his body away from Tim in an effort to give James more privacy. The second thing Andy did was to attempt to appear occupied. He first preoccupied himself by ravenously downing his sub and then moved on to watching television. Both of these actions were attempts to appear occupied and socially adept.
Applicability of Identified Social Practices
In her work on social interaction in the wireless era, Lee Humphreys identifies a number of social practices—many of which still apply today. Caller hegemony—or the idea that the person making the phone call has power over the call recipient is still prevalent. This is primarily true because the caller has all the information on why the call is being made and what the topic of discussion is going to be. Nevertheless, the rise of caller ID has taken away some of that power as the recipient now at least has an idea of where the incoming call is coming from.
The rise of texting is an even larger break from the social practices identified by Humphrey. It is becoming more of a social norm to carry on a text message conversation while interacting with someone completely different face to face. This is a result of the fact that text message conversations require less time and energy on behalf of the texter relative to a phone-to-phone converser. Thus, an individual can potentially be a “with” with a face-to-face entity and a CMC entity simultaneously. This is especially true if one is good at multitasking.
It’s incredible how quickly social norms have developed on facebook since its founding in 2004. For the most part, we all have an idea of what’s socially acceptable behavior and what’s unacceptable, inconsiderate or even downright creepy. Much of this social awareness on facebook has to do with the fact that most interactions start off Face to Face (FtF) before moving to the social networks computer-mediated communication (CMC) basis before finally ending up as mix-mode relationships. There are, however, a few gray areas that aren’t quite so established. I will examine the facebook messages feature.
It seems like the growing trend with facebook messages is to treat them the same way as you would treat a new email in your inbox. Most people have the email notification feature for facebook messages turned on. As such they are notified very quickly when someone leaves them a message. The standard, socially acceptable behavior when receiving a facebook message seems to require responding promptly to the message, just like you would to any email that requires a response. Responding later than a few days is considered unacceptable and often raises concern for the original sender.
Failure to follow the social norm and respond quickly usually leads to a few negative consequences. As with many people, I’m very busy during the week juggling work, grad courses, a nonprofit and a healthy interest in technology. In addition, I turned off the facebook email notification feature for messages that come into my email inbox—I simply found the feature a little annoying and not worth the hassle of spending time cleaning my inbox each day.
The combination of being very busy and not having the email notification for messages turned on has led to my breaking the norm of timely response on a few occasions. My cousin in London and I communicate frequently about our weekly activities and how our respective families are doing. I usually respond promptly to her messages and multiple questions about how I’m doing.
However on one occasion, I failed to respond to her facebook message for just over a week. This led to a lot of anxiety on her behalf as she thought I may be ill or depressed. She ended up calling my mom and frantically explained how worried she was. This of course made my mom worried about my well being. Before I knew it everyone in my family—both immediate and extended—was calling me to ask how I was doing and to offer their own medical advice. I quickly realized that I ought to respond to facebook messages as soon as possible if not suffer from a barrage of inquiries about my well being, which were well taken but slightly embarassing.
FtF Departures from CMC
Facebook messages don’t really have a face-to-face equivalent. As such, it is difficult to discuss the enforcement of norms and the leviathan. On the whole, FtF violation of norms usually lead to less sympathy and more hostility. Typically, if you see someone and they try to engage you in conversation and you ignore them, they will take offense or decide to ostracize you. In that sense, the consequences of ignoring another person when inhabiting the same physical presence are much more severe. After all, CMC is far more conducive to concepts like deception and practices like butler lies than FtF interaction. So it should come as no surprise then that the enforcement of CMC norms do not directly translate over to FtF communication.
Lying as a rule is generally considered socially unacceptable and morally wrong. Something is considered a lie if it is intentional and creates a false belief. Some would argue that there are certain situations in which lying is socially beneficial. This is most argued when it comes to other oriented lies—lies to benefit others. Regardless of whether one sees lying as justifiable or not, everyone has lied—even if it’s a lie about the most harmless thing—and everyone acts deceptively from time to time. When it comes to computer mediated communication, lies and deception are perhaps more common than in face to face communication.
Butler lies are a particular category of lies that utilize deception to manage social interaction. Butler lies can be used to avoid a new conversation, smoothly exit an ongoing conversation or explain other communication behavior. In John Hancock’s study of Instant Messages, of the 6996 messages sent, 685 (10%) were identified as lies, and 132 (1.89%) were classified as butler lies. I analyzed 30 text messages from my phone’s sent list and came up with the following results:
30 Total Messages
27 true messages
2 butler lies
Thus, 10% of my messages were lies and 6.7% of my messages were butler lies. These results are fairly similar to the results found in the Hancock study but with an increase in the percentage of butler lies. Looking at my messages I saw that the 2 butler lies had to do with attempts to end an ongoing conversation and to explain communication behavior. The first butler lie occurred when I was talking to an annoying individual in my major who was asking me to basically give him the answer to one of the problems on our weekly problem sets. I exited the conversation with, “sorry man I’ve got a class now. I’ll catch you later.” Of course I didn’t have a class, and I never called him back. Nonetheless, the butler lie allowed me to remain polite and seem interested in helping.
The other butler lie occurred when a friend asked if I wanted to get lunch with her. I responded with, “I’m real sorry, but I have a meeting then – let’s meet Thursday.” I didn’t have a meeting later on that day but I decided to lie because Thursday was more convenient for my schedule. Stating that I had a meeting was used as an excuse or justification for my self oriented lie.
I think that lying on IM is much harder than lying via SMS text messages primarily because of the issue of speed. Text messages limit the time pressure placed on an individual to respond because there is no sense of presence or visibility. An individual could be preoccupied with other activities and could take a long time to respond. Because there is less time pressure, individuals text messaging have a longer time to compose a well drafted excuse that allows them to lie convincingly. When using an instant messenger, the pressure to respond quickly is much higher due to a stronger sense of presence and visibility—unless there is an “invisible feature.” This means individuals are under a stronger time constraint and less able to compose well thought out, deceptive lies. In that sense, one could argue that IM is perhaps morally better for society than SMS. But that is an incredibly personal and subjective question.