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Calls, e-mails consume 1/4 of Britons' lives
Updated: 2004-05-21 16:40

In the land of Shakespeare and Chaucer, Britons spend nearly a quarter of their waking lives speaking and writing, according to a new report. But, while their eloquent ancestors painted pictures with words, artful conversation today consists of emoticons (pictures formed out of text), colorful attachments, and ring tones.

The average person spends three hours and 45 minutes a day communicating electronically, according to research released Thursday by British Gas telecommunications.

And, despite all the calls, texts, and e-mail, the report claimed people know less about their friends and family than before, and that Britons fear "in-person" conversation is becoming a thing of the past.

"The concern is that too much 'techno talk' makes us uncomfortable with more intimate face-to-face conversations and means we stop communicating effectively with each other," psychologist Dr. David Lewis told the researchers.

Londoners dispute report

Despite the grim picture painted by the survey, most Londoners questioned by MSNBC.com in an admittedly unscientific survey conducted at a tube station and in coffee shops disagreed with the prognosis, citing the benefits of increased technology.

"My work is my computer," said Claudio Cassuto, the director of a European conference organization, who sends up to 100 e-mail per day.

People have complained of the sterility of electronic communication "for ages," he said, but "with PCs there's instant communication, triangular communication" and "open dialogue" via instant messenging.

"Of course if you have a wedding, a birthday, a funeral, you don't expect to do it effectively electronically," Cassuto said. "But, those are pretty much the only occasions when people send cards and letters anymore," adding that his one-on-one speaking skills have not been affected by using the computer.

According to the report, one in three people spend less time talking to friends and family because they can text and e-mail, and 46 percent of Britons would send a text message to avoid "wasting" time by having a conversation.

"Often we're so worn out after a day of constant work talk that we just can't face conversations when we get home so it seems easier to text rather than make a call," said Lewis, the psychologist cited in the report.

But, out of the Britons interviewed in Hammersmith, West London, even those who agreed that personal interaction was difficult, disagreed with the psychologist's reasoning for it.

Steve Hindle, a development manager for a charity, said "it's more difficult to communicate face to face just 'cause you can't get away from your computer screen."

But, commenting on the psychological aspect of speaking to people in person, he said, "I'm 43, so most of my life was face to face, so it's not much different.

Claudia Primus, who studies radiotherapy and works in a library, said "If you're going to meet someone it's just easier to text them."

"Especially if you're in an area where you can't talk at work, at the doctors..." added her identical twin sister Claudette. The 28-year-olds each send around 30 text messages a day.

"At work we use Outlook all day, and Yahoo and AOL in the evenings," said Claudette, who works for a savings and loan bank, adding that in addition to talking to other people, they speak to each other on the phone for two to three hours every evening.

"It's good because we don't live in the same city she's just down for the weekend," Claudia said, referring her sister who was visiting from Bournemouth.

Written, not oral, skills seen in decline

Despite the report's fear of a decline in Britons conversational skills, Director of Education for the English-Speaking Union Neil Gilroy wasn't too worried. "I think young people in particular are more linguistically skilled than they were before."

Although the union, which runs debates as well as public-speaking courses and competitions, does not have an official position on the affects of electronic communication on English linguistics, he said, "If there is a trend in that direction we probably won't see the effects for another 10 to 15 years."

"Standards are going up every year," Gilroy said referring to public-speaking competitions for teenagers. He attributed the improvements to an increased emphasis on oral communication instruction for students of all economic backgrounds, and more class participation.

However, he said, "One is seeing a trend for more errors in written English due to the use of texting and e-mail. But, again, I would say it's still too early to know what the precise impact will be."

"If you've already gone through school you know grammar already, so it won't affect you, but for kids now it could be harder" said Claudette Primus, outside the Hammersmith Underground station.

When questioned by MSNBC.com, students shrugged off any possible confusions between truncated sentences and proper grammar. "Yeah, abbreviations are easier, but it's not more difficult to write normally," said Jade Stapleton, a 14-year-old student who sends 12 texts a day.

While the effects of electronic communication remain unclear, youngsters appear to take more pleasure in it than the older generation, many of whom dislike relearning how to communicate.

"I just think things are done better face to face," said Gilroy of the English-Speaking Union. Nearing retirement, he said he no longer refers to himself as "old fashioned," instead terming himself an "unreconstructed man."

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