Wednesday, September 13, 2017

'Is she addicted to texting?' Recruiters increasingly ask this question

A true story. A young woman was applying for a job in the Australian Public Service. She needed a security clearance and character references. A friend took the call. It would take 15 minutes. The questions were standard until one of the last: "Is your friend, in your view, addicted to texting?"

The questions that followed were about computer use and phone use more generally.

You can guess there's a problem when questionnaires designed to gauge the suitability of employees ask about texting. While the Community and Public Sector Union tells me it is not standard for candidates to be asked about their device use directly, it is very likely that their acquaintances are asked about it, directly and indirectly. There's no doubt that texting is a relevant consideration for security, but it's probably also relevant for something else: the ability to get on with meaningful work.

While powerful tools that, when used prudently, can help the mind, mobile devices can also get in the way. The compulsion to text, tweet and message can become so big it interferes with ordinary life and responsibilities.

In her excellent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, social researcher Sherry Turkle says texting is beguiling because it offers just the right amount of access and control. She calls the typical texter "Goldilocks".

"Texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance," she says. "The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay."

It's enchanting. Texting offers a promise that a message will be received in seconds. And the promise is self-fulfilling. When you receive a text message, you attend to it, whether in a meeting or during a lecture, anywhere at any time.

Turkle's interviews with young people in the United States suggest that the key pay-off from texting is getting someone's attention and feeling important. It's not as demanding as a voice conversation and it offers the appearance of greater control (although without the ability to fine-tune the message through voice and facial cues). Although texters avoid the phone, many put so much effort into composing and editing texts that it probably doesn't save them time.

It makes life seem faster, and real face-to-face conversations seem painfully slow. And the format doesn't create spaces for learning. It shrinks time and our capacity for meaningful exchange.

Compulsive texters aren't the only ones distracted by texts. They have a domino effect. Face-to-face communication can be rudely interrupted. When someone looks away to read a message, at least for an instant she has left the room.

In Japan it's a recognised syndrome. The symptoms include compulsive texting for relationship maintenance and paying excessive attention to the need to reply. An ordinary user would attribute a delay to one of a number of causes, such as the receiver being busy or engaged in another conversation. People with text-message dependency feel neglected and anxious.

Researcher Tasuku Igarashi surveyed more than 1500 high-school students and found text-message dependency related to neuroticism and negative emotional states, including moodiness and anxiety. Sarah Butt and James Phillips of Monash University found that big text messagers are more likely to be neurotic, disagreeable, unconscientious and extroverted. Compulsive texting can be a marker.

And compulsive text and internet use can take time away from work, either directly or just while at work, as people put in extra internet hours at home to catch up. Asking questions about technology use is probably a good way to get a handle on who you are about to hire. It's controversial, not least because it further blurs the already-blurry line between what's private and what belongs to an employer.

Photo: Glenn Hunt (c/o Fairfax Media) First published in The Canberra Times, Saturday, 9 September, 2017