Text Messaging and Culture

In an article on text messaging Charles McGrath (NYTimes, 1/22/06) points to some interesting cultural differences in politeness. Among the Chinese, says McGrath, it’s impolite to leave a person a voice mail. Further, one can lose face when he or she makes a call and it’s answered not by the CEO you meant to address but by a subordinate. But, with text messaging these uncomfortable situations can be avoided and everyone’s face and dignity can be maintained.
Another interesting difference is that in Mandarin, for example, the names for numbers sound much like many words and so you can select 520 to say “I love you.” [BTW, Mandarin is the world’s largest language with 873 million speakers—for comparison: Spanish is second with 322 million, English third with 309 million, Hindi fourth with 180 million, and Portuguese fifth with 177 million—according to the World Almanac and Book of Facts 2006.]
Not surprisingly, more text messages were send in China than anywhere else. For the July-September, 2005 period, 76.4 billion text messages were sent in China compared with 19.4 billion for the United States. Adjusting for population differences this means that in China each person sent 58 messages whereas in the United States each person sent 65 messages.
Here’s what McGrath says about the attraction of text-messaging: it’s a kind of avoidance mechanism that preserves the feeling of communication—the immediacy—without, for the most part, the burden of actual intimacy or substance.”
--A most interesting article.

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