01/25/2011 09:01 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Dating Means Texting

I think I'm starting to sound like my grandparents. Not my parents -- my grandparents. There are days I feel as lost in the lingo of the modern world as my grandparents must have felt when George Carlin introduced "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" and bald-faced cursing cruised the airwaves.

I grew up speaking in full sentences. Most people around me did. The only exception was when people were angry or being rude. Things have changed radically over the last ten years. Now, most communication is terse, texted or tightly packed between work and parenting. It has led to a whole new language -- which I'm not sure I understand.

Certain words are rapidly slipping from common usage. According to linguists, this happens frequently across all cultures. Expressions, phrasing and cultural emphases go the way of the dodo every generation or two. No one says "golly," or "gee whiz" or "dagnabbit" anymore. We also don't speak the Queen's English, even though many of America's original settlers came from the Great Isle.

Things change. In and of itself, this language modification is neither good nor bad. It reflects changes in our culture and in our collective consciousness. It's a record of what we find important and what we disdain.

In recent history, however, things have been fast-forwarded -- literally. Texting, instant messaging and cyber-signing communication have certainly had an effect on what we are willing to say and how much energy we are willing to expend on understanding and being understood by others. If you value accuracy and resolution, you will agree that technology has been detrimental on these fronts.

The underlying truth is this: What we say and how we say it is a reflection of what we value.

Let's start with some more modern definitions of the word "dating." I have worked with clients who thought texting was what I meant by "dating." Not only has their understanding of the word "dating" changed, but their values and expectations are almost unrecognizable to previous generations. To my younger clients, texting and exchanging some identifying data on Facebook (favorite color, vacation spots, scantily clad pictures) was enough to warrant a "hook-up" on a Saturday night. To those who came of age prior to the 1960s, dating meant a period of time in which two people determined if they were compatible for marriage. Even as recently as twenty years ago, dating usually preceded intimacy, even if marriage wasn't the destination.

Here's another thing about this subtle alteration: Most of the people I know under 25 have less to say than Marcel Marceau. It's not because they're not bright or not thinking. But for them, speaking seems to take too much time, too much energy and too much commitment. So what this insta-code linguistic reflects is a lack of interest in face-to-face, mind-to-mind intimacy and a social-emotional lethargy that runs deep. After I asked one client who was "seeing" someone online how she expected to get to know him, she said, "What's to get to know?" She was sincere. I was frightened for her.

If what I'm suggesting is true, then the words that are becoming extinct in our culture reflect a trend that should concern all of us.

When was the last time you heard the word "fidelity" in ordinary conversation outside of a music store? Or the last time someone spoke of "devotion" outside of a church? Or "honor" outside the military?

An example: A woman I know has spent twenty years or more with a man who is deeply disturbed. He cycles up and down, in and out of psychotic episodes and has been hospitalized more times than she can recall. When he's stabilized, she says he's the most wonderful man she's ever known. When he's lost his way and his mind, he puts them into financial ruin and makes her do the work of three people. She lives without sleep for days at a time to watch over him.

She said the other day, "Everyone tells me to leave him. Even his mother said to me, 'I don't know why you stay.'"

So I asked her, "Why do you?"

As clear and constant as a call to worship, she said, "Because I love him. I'm devoted to him. He's my husband."

Imagine that.

In this day and age, when leaving is as easy as booking a flight and filing pro se divorce papers, when all the odds are stacked against marriage and devotion is called codependent, she stayed. I don't agree or disagree with her decision. But it is certainly uncommon.

A while back, my sister sent me a message on Facebook. At the end, she included a face with a "P" at the bottom. At least that was what it looked like to me. After two days I went back to it and finally "got" that she was sticking her tongue out at me! It made me laugh until I realized that I am living in a world where I don't speak the language anymore. I'm not sure whether to keep laughing or start crying.

Culture and Language

The minimization of communication is no accident. It comes as a consequence of minimal thinking, lethargy and indifference. To some, this is the death knell of American and Western civilization, the end of democracy as we know it (which requires active and informed participation by all citizens), the end of the broadest literacy rate in the history of mankind and the end of equality of opportunity (for this too, takes an active, watchful and observant eye). It's hardly surprising. Before the fall of every civilization came a period of fattening, of loosening and, finally, of decay.

In response to one of my blogs, a clergyman I know and respect wrote to tell me a story about an experience he had teaching a group of teenagers (aged 13-16) at summer camp.

They were all gathered at a round table discussion on the general concept of "important teen issues." Everyone had a chance to write down what was important to him or her. Someone had written the verboten theme: sexual immorality.

One of the counselors (a young woman in her early 20s) immediately raised her hand and asked, with all innocence, "What's sexual immorality? I've never heard of it before." Mind you, this was at a summer camp sponsored by a local church. The clergyman monitoring the group was at an honest loss for words. Where to start? He wrote to me that the saddest part, from his point of view, was that this young lady had honestly never been taught anything whatsoever about it. Sex and morality were separated by a deep cultural chasm and, as she explained to him, "Whatever two consenting adults do is fine, right?"

He shared another similar story: A teacher of middle-advanced years began working in a local school. Part of her routine was to ask her students to line up every morning, look her in the eye, greet her with manners and warmth, turn in their homework and finally take a seat.

The principal, who was young and new to the job, was alerted to this breach in standard protocol and confronted the teacher, demanding to know what made her do such an unusual thing.

The teacher answered, "To teach them respect, discipline, courtesy, and accountability."

The principal promptly, and in no uncertain terms, ordered the teacher to cease and desist. "We only teach reading, writing and arithmetic. And the time you're taking on your ritual is taking time away from the school's directives."

The teacher stood motionless, disbelieving.

"We don't teach respect, discipline, courtesy and accountability," the principal repeated as she walked away. "We don't have an approved curriculum for it and it is not in the government's standard testing."

Is it any wonder that our language is shrinking? It's only a reflection of our thinking.