It’s interesting how much an individual’s personality sometimes seems to clash with his or her communication patterns. Especially with teenagers.
One girl I’m working with comes to mind. I haven’t known her all that long—maybe a month and a half or so — and we’ve been officially working together for less time than that.
Let’s call her Radha. Radha comes from a family of artists—her mother is in fashion, her dad does interior design and construction, and neither went to college. The main room of their house is a fantastical mix of neon green and orange couches, bleeding heart sculptures hanging amongst intricately crafted glass fixtures from the ceiling, an upright piano against the wall that looks like it’d been wheeled directly out of some saloon in the Wild West. The mother’s hair seems to spring out of her head in pink curls, as if she styled it with one finger in an electrical socket, and she sports Jackie-O frames for her glasses, without the sunglasses tint. Someone there is always drinking coffee, no matter what time of day.
Despite all appearances, they’re the most down-to-earth people to speak with—dialed-in listeners, meticulous as they speak (perhaps in part because the parents don’t speak English as their first language), very open and responsive. Radha has a very direct, grounded manner, and has no trouble expressing whatever thoughts are on her mind. There is something very adult about the way she carries herself, which made our first couple of meetings energizing and fun. She had some very clear, direct answers when I started asking questions to get a feel for her college preferences. In other instances, she had no idea, but it was apparent that she was still engaged with the question—she never cuts off with the sort of “I dunno” that we all probably have become so accustomed to from many teens.
We took winter break off, planning to reconvene in the first week back to school in January to talk about some campuses she was planning to walk through during her time off. And then, the day before, I get an email that she needs to push things back, because she hadn’t made all the stops she’d intended. No problem, I replied. What does your schedule look like over the next couple of weeks?
No reply. I checked back in a few days later with a text, and a few days after that, another email that included some time-sensitive information. Nothing.
Until late last night: I woke up to an email addressing everything all my questions asked as if I’d written them yesterday. No acknowledgement of any delay or interruption whatsoever.
“Is that a normal mode of communication for teenagers these days?” I wonder. Am I overreacting in some way? It feels like the loose etiquette of texting—just an ongoing conversation, where you pick up and leave off according to everything else going on in your life. Email and phone conversations still feel as if they have more of a formalized opening and closing etiquette to them, as well as an expected response time. (I’m a big fan of returning emails within 24 hours, ideally at designated times of the day, to help manage correspondents’ expectations.)
Maybe it’s time to adapt?
By Nick Soper