If you look up which generation is considered Millennial, you’ll get a variety of answers on the cohort age group that represents this class. Sometimes when I hear my colleagues complain about “those millenials”, I often don’t know how to answer, since I’m not sure if I’m part of the joke, or in on it.
I was born right at the arguable and rather ambiguous cut off point of the generation of “Millennials”, in the year 1983. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe coined the term in 1987, which referred to a graduating high school class at the turning of the “millennium”, hence the year 2000.
I came of age when it was considered normal to daydream about Oregon Trail and create mixed tapes of songs you copied on the radio and gifted to friends, a time when you could hear your parents yell at you over the dial up modem when you were logging on to use AOL. I was one of the first kids in my high school class to have a mobile phone which my father strictly told me was for “emergency only” with only 50 available monthly minutes that couldn’t even begin to cover the exhalations in my conversations.
In my international Middle-Eastern household, it was common practice to see various extended family members and friends walking in and out for meals and coffee like it was the local community house. The phone almost never stopped ringing and my mother’s rolodex was constantly being updated with new cards. Conversation flowed into my life as aggressively as an ocean wave crashing into a sandy beach; I had no choice but to defend myself to it and participate.
And with time, I learned that the art of conversation was most enjoyable when it mimicked an evenly matched tennis game; one person hits the ball over the net, and the other responds and so on. The game is more enjoyable when you can keep the ball out of the net. In order to play well, you had to be fully engaged and present. It was never much fun to be outmatched in these games, with one person overcompensating their serve, or matched with a significantly weaker player. In order to participate, you had to listen, and you became a stronger conversationalist in time.
There were select periods of my life that transformed the way I communicated entirely, and the shift was more gradual in nature than immediate. In junior high, I was an early lover of online chat rooms and games. While I spent my earlier childhood devouring books salaciously to understand how other people think and how they lived, I suddenly had access to an entire world that I never had access to before. The world was undoubtedly, my oyster in the suburbs of Chicago once I logged on as “yazchick” on aim.
But over time, I saw the conversation shift within and across families and friends. Rather than only enjoying live conversations together, our millennial group started isolating ourselves and talking to many in closed chat rooms and instant messenger. And so the loss in desire of individual and intimate spoken conversations began. Why would I spend an hour on the phone chatting with my girlfriend when I could make 5 new friends and exchange new ideas with similar interest online groups? It was far more productive to do the latter, and time is our most valuable currency. While I always tried to do both, time was short and hundreds of in person conversations and phone conversations were lost into the AIM chat room abyss.
The intimacy shift didn’t stop there. During my first year at Cornell, Facebook emerged. Fast forward a few years after graduation, and everyone promptly replaced their cell phones with the smart mobile phone. And then we were introduced to: TEXTING.
Texting has become the primary source of all communication today for millenials. Quick poll, how many texts did you receive today? How many did you send? What if you added them? More than 20? 50? 100?
Don’t get me wrong. I love that we have access to the world at our disposal and all of the channels available from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Medium and beyond. I’m the poster child for social media. With the click of a button, we can immediately be transported on the streets of Cairo during the Arab Spring, in the townships of South Africa, or in Washington DC during an unmentionable President’s inauguration. And we can learn so much about ourselves in the process. Access to information allows us to be informed if we so choose to take the time and diligence required to sift through the noise.
But texting is another story.
Many of my millennial and gen y friends almost never listen to their voicemails, and prefer texting over real phone conversations 9 times out of 10. In fact, calling is now reserved for things like deaths, engagements, customer service complaints, and any major life changes.
Have we conditioned ourselves to lose our ability to authentically and intimately connect with each other with spoken word?
On some days, I can’t help but think that while we’ve gained a larger network and a more efficient way to communicate, we have lost a deeper level of intimacy to connect. Communication at the start of the “millennial” cohort was vastly different than it is today. We couldn’t hide our real selves with TL:DR shorthand versions behind screens. We spoke, and expressed our multitude of emotions in our speech at the dinner table and beyond. In verbal dialogue, we did more than exchange information; we came to know each other on a deeper level.
I know I’ll still probably send as many texts tomorrow as I did today, but my goal is to revisit the days that I could call someone, and make the uncomfortable conversations maybe more comfortable and more intimate in the long run.
So going forward, don’t text me. Call me instead.
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If you’d like to connect, you can find me on Twitter.