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Chapter 4: Telecommunication Behaviour

Stephen von Tetzchner and Knut Nordby

Telecommunications play an indispensable role in forming the patterns of human co-operation and communication in modern society. Telecommunications will change or replace some of the earlier ways of establishing and maintaining social relationships, and may even create completely new forms of social interaction. Knowledge about telecommunications and the demands they make on the users is therefore important for the understanding of the development of society and the role of telecommunications.

In this chapter, the change in communication patterns with increasing use of telecommunications, how telecommunication differs from direct communication, and how individual differences may influence the way people make use of telecommunication media, are discussed.

1.0 New Communication Patterns

Social contacts between people are established within time and geographical frames which set conditions for co-operation and communication. The increased accessibility of people provided by telecommunications leads to the faster establishment of new social situations. When the telephone rings, one does not know who it is, and a call may suddenly change the life situation. It may be sad tidings of death or accidents, but it may also be news of winning money in the lottery or getting a promotion, or it may only be someone who has got the wrong number.

The telephone, like the car and other means of transport, has made social interaction less dependent on geographical proximity and has created new social relationships. Mutual knowledge, established and maintained through frequent contacts, is a prerequisite for enduring social relationships. The telephone has a decentralised people's life world since it makes it possible to establish a network of socially close, but geographically scattered, contacts a "psychological neighbourhood" (cf. Aronson, 1971). An extended "electronic" neighbourhood may make communication within the local environment less important, but it is worth noting that the majority of calls are typically made within the local environment, that is, within the city, town or commune (Figure 4.1).

The telephone also makes it easier to intrude upon people's privacy. The caller assumes the power of defining the situation. When the boss calls in the evening, the secretary is suddenly "back at work". A ringing telephone is quickly answered and seldom ignored. An American study showed that of people who were at home, 96 percent answered the telephone before the end of the fourth ring (Smead and Wilcox, 1980).

The widespread use of the telephone makes people more accessible, provided one knows where they are and that they have a telephone. The radio pager has overcome this obstacle, and people with mobile telephones are in principle reachable wherever they are, also in places where they until now have been shielded from telephone calls.

As in other forms of social interactions, most people follow unwritten social conventions. One does not call early in the morning or late at night, or at times when the person is known to be busy. But it is considered less invasive to telephone than to make an unannounced visit to someone. Many people would telephone someone they do not feel they could visit. For this reason, people sometimes have to shield themselves against such intrusion, e.g. by pulling out the telephone plug. Secretaries and switchboard operators are often instructed to screen incoming calls, for example, to protect management from undesirable calls. Politicians and other publicly known people, who need control over who is allowed to contact them, will usually not be listed in the telephone directory.

It is technically feasible to have the caller's number displayed (caller identification), or automatically to reject calls from specified numbers. These services are not yet available in Europe, but they are becoming common in the USA. This has created a need for a service for withholding the caller's telephone number. that is, the calls will be anonymous, and the called party will only get a message saying that the caller does not wish to be identified. To ensure a caller's right to anonymity, a law has been proposed in the USA that will oblige operating companies who offer caller identification service also to offer a number withhold service (Adler, Springen and Cohen, 1990).

1.1 Travel

There are close connections between telecommunications and travel. The frequent contacts that are possible over the telephone would be impossible for most people to have as face-to-face meetings time would not allow it. On the other hand, it is not probable that the trips that are "saved" would have been made if it had not been possible to telephone. Actually, the telephone may substitute only some meetings, but it allows "meetings" that would otherwise not have been held.

Better transport and more face-to-face contacts, however, seem to increase, rather than to decrease, the need for telecommunication.

When the Severn bridge, connecting Southwest England and South Wales, was opened, there was a dramatic increase in telephone calls between the two areas (Short, Williams and Christie, 1976).

When the Berlin Wall was opened in 1989, the telephone network in East Berlin broke down due to the extreme traffic increase.

More use of telecommunications will also increase the need for travel and transport. If one makes business with people over the telephone, there will also be a need to meet. The telephone is useful for making appointments to visit people, there is always the risk that they may not be home if the visit is unannounced, or that the visit is not appropriate. A quick call will usually resolve this.

To sum up, although telecommunication in many instances saves travel, increased use of telecommunication may actually lead to more travel, and the net result is an over all increase in travel activity.

1.2 Written Communication

It is difficult to know what the number of letters sent by mail would have been today if there had not been a telephone. It is not so common to write to people to whom one talks often on the telephone. The long, personal letters of yesterday seem to have disappeared, and, to a large extent, have been replaced by long telephone conversations and short greetings on postcards and Christmas cards. Letters are still used in formal business transactions and for short ritual greetings in connection with birthdays, holidays and special occasions.

Still, written telecommunication is increasing. Telefax has had an explosive growth over the last few years, but also electronic mail (cf. chapter 32) and other forms of text communication between personal computers and work station terminals are growing, including text communication devices for speech impaired and deaf people.

Telefax makes it possible to copy documents at a distance over the telephone line, and it offers the same availability of people as the telephone. The message is transmitted instantly and, even when the address is not present, the message will be received. This also applies to electronic mail, but this service is mainly used by small specialised groups and it has not yet been as widely adopted as telefax. Another advantage of telefax and electronic mail is that it is not necessary to talk to and disturb the addressee when one only wants to give a message, making such communication quicker and more efficient than the telephone.

Telefax and electronic mail make greater demands on the users' abilities to operate complex terminals and on their communication abilities than the ordinary telephone. Electronic mail presupposes that the users can operate a computer and master the special command set that is used to navigate through the "electronic jungle" in which they move about.

1.3 Group Media

The vast majority of telephone conversations are made between two persons. However, it is also possible, via a conference telephone service to connect several people in different places. Until now, this possibility has been used mostly in professional situations, but as the service becomes more user friendly and more people get to know about it, it will probably be used also for group contacts between family and friends.

The "Chat line" (i.e. group bridging) is a new kind of service that recently has become very popular. This service allows a small number of people (typically 6-10) who dial a special number to be interconnected so that they can all speak and listen to each other. The "Chat line" is a very special kind of social interaction. One may take part in the discussions or only listen to people who are unknown without revealing one's identity. It is possible to discuss topics or express views which people would normally not dare to speak about. The "Chat line" provides an instant source of social contact or opportunities to listen to other people's conversations. According to a Dutch survey, 60 per cent of the people who telephoned the "Chat lines" listened without saying anything, and only 40 per cent took active part in the conversations (Erdal, 1990).

With a personal computer and a modem, it is possible to participate in computer conferences and access "bulletin boards". The electronic conferences may be regarded as continuations of the concept of pen friends, except that the communication exchange is much faster and it is possible to reach many people simultaneously. Many computer conferences are "open", allowing anyone to read and write to the bulletin boards. Other conferences are "closed", i.e. only registered subscribers may participate. Most computer conferences deal with a particular theme or topic, bringing together people with mutual interests.

"Chat lines" and computer conferences represent new ways to establish social contacts. Mutual interests or the need for someone to "talk" to, rather than maintaining an established acquaintance, seems to be the basis for this form of communication. In Finland there is now a special club for people who have first talked on the "Chat line", but who later wished to meet face-to-face, just like pen pals often wish to meet after having corresponded for some time.

Both "Chat line" and computer conference services have had an enormous increase, which means that people to a greater extent than before communicate with people they have never met and know almost nothing about. Such relationships are, however, still rare compared with ordinary face-to-face relationships.

2.0 Conversations and Telecommunications

Language competency is a prerequisite in nearly all communication. However, communication is not only verbal. Emotions may be divulged through the loudness and tone of voice, through pauses and speed of speech or signing. Gestures, body posture, glances and facial expressions are other examples of non-verbal communication that accompany and complement the verbal expression.

In verbal communication, the dialogue is basic. To understand a conversation and its course, it is not enough to monitor the verbal and non-verbal expressions; the setting or context of the conversation and its function should also be taken into account. A conversation may have a practical aim, such as planning a trip with another person, or it may be unpretentious chatting. The interaction in a conversation is based on knowledge about the situation in which the conversation takes place and about the participants, the cultural background and expectations about the discourse. A debate in a formal forum proceeds differently from a lunch hour discussion; one may interrupt a colleague but not the speaker on the rostrum.

The quality of a telephone conversation is not the same as that of a face-to-face conversation. Telecommunications are characterised by the fewer mutual situational cues, as compared with face-to-face conversations and other situations where the parties can see each other. This leads to a lower degree of what Short et al. (1976) call "social presence". These distinctions are not due to differences in physical stimuli, but to the kind of relations the various forms of telecommunications may create between the communicating parties (cf. Moscovici, 1967).

Telecommunications, as opposed to face-to-face dealings, offer anonymity, which can sometimes be vital. The idea behind the "SOS telephone" or "hot lines", for example, for battered women, abused children and suicidal people, is based on those people who telephone staying anonymous until they decide to identify themselves. Many people may find it easier to talk about personal problems to a sympathetic listener they do not know and who knows nothing about them than speaking to a person face to face. The intimacy and nearness created when speaking about personal matters with someone they know well may be too stressful for many people. In such cases the anonymity and lack of situational cues in telephony may actually enhance closeness rather than distance. This may partially explain the openness and frankness that often characterises communication on "Chat lines" and computer conferences (see Ball-Rockeach and Reardon, 1988).

But anonymity may also be abused, as in rude, indecent "heavy breathing" calls, telephone terror and harassment, where the identity of the caller is protected. Caller identification may, to some extent, reduce this problem, but the possibility of a caller number identification suppression will still help maintain anonymity in this very undesirable telephone behaviour.

Telecommunication costs money, and considerations for cost have always played an important role in how telecommunications are used. The awareness of the fact that it costs money to talk may contribute in making telephone conversations shorter and more efficient than they would otherwise have been. In the telecommunications, distance is not measured in kilometres but in tariff time units, which may not always reflect the actual geographic distance; i.e, the tariff time unit may be the same for all calls from 10 to 1000 kilometres (in the post, weight may be more important than distance; it costs the same to mail a letter across the street and across the country).

It may also be noted that one reason for the telephone's efficiency is that it is often easier to terminate a conversation over the telephone than it is in a face-to-face meeting. Cultural conventions necessitate more social rituals when visiting than when making a telephone call; for example, after a telephone call one cannot see the caller to the door. It is accepted that the caller, who is paying for the call, may end it quickly and hang up.

2.1 Speech

In telecommunication the partners can only act on what they can hear and this determines the form and contents of the conversations. What is special about telecommunications may be illustrated by how telephone conversation typically start (cf. Schleglof, 1972; 1979).

When calling, the caller cannot always count on being immediately recognised as in face-to-face meetings, even when the callers are known to each other. Thus, it is usual for the caller to identify himself or herself when the call is answered.

J: Johnson speaking

R: Hi, this is Robert

J: Hi, Robert!

Not everyone makes a presentation, and sometimes this is not necessary with people who know each other very well.

P: Hello?

D: Hi!

P: Oh, hi David!

But sometimes lack of introduction leads to uncertainty.

H: Hello?


H: Who is speaking?

M: This is Michael

H: Oh, hi Michael!

It is easier for the caller to know who will answer than for the called party to know who is calling. However, it is not always the case that the caller recognises the voice of the person who answers the telephone, and may wish not to identify himself or herself until he or she knows who has answered the call.

J: Hello?

A: May I speak to John, please?

J: Speaking

A: Hi John, this is Albert

The visual parts of the non-verbal communication in face-to-face conversations, such as direction of gaze, eye contact, gestures, body posture and facial expressions, serve as cues for regulating the discourse, taking turns in speaking etc. Such cues are important for organising the conversation because it is difficult to listen and speak simultaneously. Nevertheless, the regulation of the discourse does not break down even when the parties rely only on hearing. In ear-to-ear conversations, sentences are usually shorter, there are fewer interruptions and there is less overlap, i.e. both parties speaking at the same time. Nor are there as many pauses, since the pauses are filled by the other party who may take them as opportunities for speaking (see Butterworth, Hine and Brady, 1977). There is reason to believe that this determines the way the telephone is utilised and what communicative functions are best served by the telephone.

Fewer situational cues may lead to a feeling of distance, which may give conversations a more practical and less personal character (Rutter, 1987).

The significance of the lack of visual cues in telephone communication has been emphasised by Short et al. (1976). However, a person's telecommunication behaviour may have been formed through the use of one particular form of telecommunication equipment, and this behaviour may not be appropriate with other forms of telecommunications.

In a study of videotelephone communication, a voice-switched, loudspeaking telephone was used. In voice-switched telephony it is essential not to interrupt the speaker, because this may make parts of the speech be lost. Since this was also a video transmission, it was possible to use visual cues instead of acoustic ones, that is, to nod or smile to show attention, agreement or appreciation, similar to when listening to someone one should not interrupt. However, the participants found it difficult not to make various assertive sounds (i.e. acoustic nodding), even though a nod with the head would have sufficed. Well adapted telephone behaviour actually prevented optimal utilisation of the new communication medium (cf. chapter 42).

Relatively few comparisons between face-to-face and ear-to-ear (i.e. telephone) conversations, where the participants are not aware that they are being observed, have been made. Following the Watergate scandal, some of president Nixon's taped telephone conversations were compared to his face-to-face conversations with the same people. The analysis of the tapes showed that, on average, the telephone conversations were shorter, contained fewer social rituals, had more disagreements and were, on the whole, less pleasant and less personal than the face-to-face conversations. The study is faulted, however, since the tapes were edited, inparticular all expletives and profane language had been deleted (see Wilson and Williams, 1977).

Most comparisons of face-to-face conversations and telephone conversations deal with instrumental conversations, that is, conversations with a particular purpose, for instance persuasion, conflict-solving or crisis intervention. Moreover, they do not usually treat real situations, but simulations of conversation situations under controlled conditions. The participants' tasks may for instance be to read a map together, identify a light bulb, find profitable and non-profitable factories, draw up a time schedule or find out what to do with a worker who slows down production (Rutter 1987; Williams 1977). The tasks are usually worked out face to face, over the telephone or with writing.

The surveys show that the more cues there are in a conversation, the higher the degree of social interaction, that is, there are more ritual comments and comments without reference to the case. Hence it may be more "efficient" to persuade people over the telephone than face to face. Morley and Stephenson (1969, 1970) found that the actual state of the case was more vital to the outcome of negotiations on the telephone than when the parties discussed the matter face to face.

Forty students were to asked to take the roles of union representatives or employers in a labour dispute. They were thoroughly briefed about the case, which was based on a real situation, but half of the students were given the impression that the union had the stronger case, whereas the others were led to believe that the employers were in the stronger position. Half of each group negotiated face to face. The other half had audio connection only and could not see each other. The results showed that the outcome of the negotiation tended to be more in favour of those who were led to believe that they had the stronger case when there was an audio connection than when the parties negotiated face to face. This effect was strengthened when the negotiating parties were to speak only one at a time without being allowed to interrupt the other, something that obviously reinforced the "natural" organisation of conversations without visual cues.

Rutter (1987) attributes the results to the absence of the cues which usually contribute to direct the conversation, and to the fact that most people have relatively limited experience in perceiving and reacting to expressions of the other party's personal qualities without support from visual cues. Telephone conversations are therefore less social and personal than face-to-face conversations, in which the personal qualities of the partner are more important.

Comparisons of telephone conversations of blind and sighted persons show the significance of being accustomed to communicating without relying on visual cues. For blind people, acoustic cues are normally the main source of social information. In surveys where both or one of the conversation's parties were blind, the conversation was less purposeful than when both parties were sighted, and there was more chatter and small talk (Rutter, Stephenson and Dewey, 1981). This shows that the lack of visual cues as such is not decisive, but for sighted people they are important parts of the context in which the conversation takes place. For those who are used to relying on such cues, the conversation is likely to be influenced by their absence. The way in which blind people communicate on the telephone shows that there are sufficient cues in that situation to give the conversation a personal character. Blind people have experience in using auditory cues, hence they have an advantage when using this medium.

In such comparisons, instrumental conversations are used. It may be the case that more social conversations, like calling relatives and friends to hear how they are, would generate fewer differences. Nevertheless, the medium itself appears to set certain limits to the nature of the conversation. Argyle, Lalljee and Cook (1968) let students get to know each other face to face and on the telephone. They, too, found shorter sentences and less overlapping in telephone conversations than in face-to-face situations.

How the conversational frame influences the outcome of telephone conversations between people who know each other is not known. In a modern society, a great deal of the negotiations that form the basis of decision making, both private and public, are carried out on the telephone, and the form typical telephone conversations take is likely to be of some significance. This may the reason for statements like "this cannot be decided on the telephone" or "this will have to be discussed when we meet".

The use of the telephone is ever-increasing, and it is possible that this will entail that the distinctive features of telephone conversations will become less apparent. It is particularly elderly people who tend not to feel at ease with this medium. They have had little experience in creating nearness over the telephone. People who are young today, however, have grown up with the telephone as an everyday communication tool. In time, this may lead to less difference between face-to-face conversations and telephone conversations than have been found in previous research.

2.2 Written Communication

To an even higher degree than telephone communication, written communication lacks ordinary non-verbal conversational cues, and gives little "social presence" (Short et al., 1976). Written communication differs substantially from spoken language. It is more formal and detailed. Compared with speech, written conversations are slower because writing takes more time than speaking. It is true that most people read faster than it normally takes to speak, but it is the time it takes to write that decides the speed of the interaction. Experimental negotiatory situations have shown that the number of utterances made in face-to-face and telephone conversations is many times higher than the number made in written communication (Weeks and Chapanis, 1976). Thus, writing is not normally an efficient tool for conversations.

Many of the new telecommunication services are based on writing, supported by charts, graphs and diagrams, either by means of a personal computer or an exclusive videotex terminal. In the French videotex system, Minitel, the most frequently used service (apart from the telephone directory) is "electronic messages", including electronic conferences and electronic mail (Ball-Rokeach and Reardon, 1988).

The communicative skills required by the user are mainly the same for electronic mail as for ordinary mail. In addition, the user has to be able to use the terminal equipment. Hence electronic mail is more complicated to use than the telephone. Still, it may, to a certain extent, replace telephone conversations. A written message is an advantage for the receiver, because it takes less time, for most people, to read a written message than to listen to a tape. For the sender it may be an advantage not having to disturb the receiver. Usually it will take more time to write a message than it takes to say it, but electronic mail may still be faster because it will not be necessary to go through the social rituals associated with a telephone conversation.

The possibility offered by electronic mail and message handling may lead to a change in the expectations of telephone conversations. Today, it is acceptable to make a telephone call in order to deliver a message, but in the future, frequent use of electronic mail may mean that the telephone will entail a more social function or a need to exchange views and discuss something.

In general, written communication is not much used for dialogues and other types of conversation, except by people who use a text telephone because of hearing or speech impairment. This is a form of telecommunication where the dialogue is carried on by means of a text telephone terminal, a computer with a suitable communication program or, like in France, by means of videotex (cf. chapters 27-31).

Electronic conferences consist of written contributions, but to a certain degree they can be compared to "Chat lines" and the "theme lines" of the telephone service. When using these services, however, words disappear as soon as they are spoken. The advantages of electronic conferences are the possibilities to continue a discussion for days, weeks and months, and to read messages long after they have been written. Thus, the messages communicated through electronic conferences may be accessible for a large number of people over an extended period of time, contributing to a wider distribution of both formal and informal knowledge. The participants do not have to be present at the same time, but since the contributions are responses to other contributions, the electronic conference may still be reminiscent of a group conversation.

A conversational form which does not have to take place within a certain period of time is well suited for persons with severe motor impairment and speech disorder because they tend to communicate very slowly. As participants in electronic conferences they can read what others have written, as well as write their own contributions when it is convenient for them. They do not have do communicate quickly. They can read and write at their own speed, and they are not dependent on others in order to communicate (Lundmann, 1991; Magnusson, 1989).

Both text telephones and electronic conferences are examples of changes in the conditions for distance communication. Those changes are particularly positive for certain groups of people who have now gained access to telecommunication services, even if the required technical and communicative competence is more advanced. But also for people with ordinary communication skills, written communication can contribute to a wider communication repertoire.

2.3 Video Communication

While written communication requires more than just the basic communication skills, the videotelephone seems to make telecommunication more "natural". With a videotelephone, live pictures and speech are transmitted together. This renders more visual cues, though still not all the cues that are present in face-to-face-conversations. Research shows that the transmission of live pictures creates communication which falls somewhere between ordinary telephone conversations and face-to-face conversations. Some of the participants in the early videotelephone trials, however, voiced the opinion that seeing the other person is of secondary importance. They said that they felt a higher degree of nearness with the videotelephone than with the telephone, but that the actual use of the picture may be limited (cf. Dicksom and Bowers, 1973; Rutter, Stephenson and Dewey, 1981).

In these short-term trials, the picture was mainly used to show the face of the conversation partners, and the possibilities of the medium were not fully exploited. The visual information was never critical, that is, the picture was never a prerequisite for communication and understanding of the message. However, in videotelephone field trials of distance supervision for example (see chapters 42 and 43), the visual information was crucial. Such supervision sessions would not have been possible without the picture. It would have made impossible demands on the descriptive abilities of those who were supervised, which in fact would have required that they knew what they were doing wrong.

Another example of critical visual information is the sign language used by deaf people. In order for those who communicate by sign language to be able to use their language over the telecommunication network, they are dependent on the visual information that may be transmitted with a videotelephone. Therefore, the videotelephone will be of great importance for this group (cf. chapters 39, 40 and 45a). The videotelephone may also give people with partial hearing lip-reading support when they communicate in the spoken language (cf. chapter 38).

Many of the visual cues that are absent in ordinary telephone conversations are present in videotelephone conversations. Through the transition from letters and telegrams to telephone conversations, users were enabled to use more of their communicative competence, thereby improving communication. Similarly, there is reason to believe that the videotelephone will facilitate improved communication and therefore be easier to use as a means of communication than the telephone. This is particularly important for people who are dependent on visual cues because of hearing impairment and for those who have problems understanding an ordinary telephone conversation with limited cues because of, for instance, mental retardation or aphasia (cf. chapters 34-36). Deaf people, for example, are presently dependent on written communication, but many of those who became deaf at an early age have limited oral and written lingual skills, hence their benefit from the text telephone is limited.

The videotelephone removes some of the previous limitations of telecommunication, and may create situations that are similar to face-to-face conversations. This may imply an expansion of the communicative situation, and thereby the areas in which telecommunications may be applied. Because the situation is moving closer to "natural" social interaction, there is reason to believe that the number of functions which can be filled through telecommunications will also increase. The videotelephone will soon be generally available. It remains to be seen how this will influence the "electronic neighbourhood".

2.4 Sound, Text and Picture

The development of new telecommunication terminals is focused on multi-media terminals which can transmit data, pictures and sound at the same time. Modern computer technology has resulted in an increased use of pictures and graphics in reports and other written documents. When this is applied in communication, the receives gets other cues, and more cues, than those normally present in face-to-face conversations. This development may improve communication in general, and in addition it may be vital for people who can make little use of communication with speech alone.

Although it is usual to supplement ordinary conversations with pictorial aspects, for instance by doodling on a piece of paper or drawing figures in the air, real multi-media communication forms are used mainly in particular contexts, such as in connection with speeches and lectures, where slides and transparencies are frequently used. Not many people, however, have the experience that is necessary in order to utilise fully the possibilities pictures and graphics may provide. To carry on a dialogue consisting of speech, pictures and graphics in such a way that the visual aspects supplement and extend what is being said, requires a special competency, as well as ingenuity and creativity. But therein lies also the opportunity to create new forms of telecommunication and to develop a new type of communicative competence (Mathisen, 1990).


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