“I think he's mad at me... He only used one exclamation point and there’s no smiley face.”
It may seem pretty ridiculous in retrospect, but we can't tell you how many times we've gone down this road... assuming people are mad at us, hurting other people unintentionally, or accusing others of being insensitive when they really weren't. When it comes to texting, it’s way too easy to project your own crap.
That’s why we're taking a new tactic when it comes to electronic communications. We still text about logistics like “I’m running five minutes late” and we often send messages letting loved ones know we're thinking of them (especially since us sisters are living an ocean apart at the moment!), but we stay clear of any conversations that require context or clarification. And we definitely don’t broach topics that are sensitive or could be upsetting. So, in other words, a lot of topics are a no-go.
Why are text messages so easy to misinterpret? Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). While there's some debate about his findings, we think few would argue that when it comes to texting, a lot gets lost in translation.
Without these non-verbal clues, we’re forced to fill in the gaps ourselves. Unfortunately, if we’re already struggling with doubts or insecurities, it’s likely we’ll create a story that reflects those fears. Conversely, if we are in a bad mood or are harbouring uncommunicated anger or resentment about something, we're likely to convey that in a very cryptic and passive-aggressive way. Whether it's a new relationship (romantic or otherwise) where you don't have the context of past experience, or a relationship that's going through a bumpy patch, texting creates an environment ripe for misinterpretation. If that misinterpretation leads to an argument, you've got yourself a whole other problem.
We've seen how the internet has created a culture of vicious commenting. There are lots of factors at play that contribute to this hurtful phenomenon, but we believe one element in particular - the ability to disassociate - happens with text communications as well. When you see someone in person or talk on the phone, you're reminded that your words are being received by a human being with feelings. But when you're texting, there's nothing facilitating that connection.
To complicate matters, we live in an era where smartphones enable us to be in constant communication even when we’re in situations that aren’t all that conducive to reflective dialogue. As a result, texts can go unanswered (which can be infuriating for the person anxiously awaiting a reply) or messages may be sent that reflect our distracted state.
To help avoid some of these pitfalls, here are five tips for texting wisely:
- Avoid making texting your only mode of communication. As we said, we love it for keeping in touch with friends and family who are living abroad, but we try to use it in addition to scheduled phone or Skype dates.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt. Sure, you might receive a nasty text message from your landlord or boss, but most text communications are from people who care about you. Try to make it your default to assume the best intentions.
- If you do receive a message that sends you spiralling to that place of "oh my god they're so mad at me!" or "oh my god they are being so insensitive" pick up the phone! Chances are, you're created an entire story that doesn't exist and you're stressing yourself out for nothing.
- Remember that just because you're available to text doesn't mean it's a good time for them.
- We know not everyone is a fan of emoticons, but personally, we think a smiley face goes a long way for setting tone. :)
There are lots of benefits to texting. We love receiving midday messages from our partners telling us they're thinking about us, and it can be a lifesaver when you're stuck on a streetcar and need to let someone know you're running late. But when it comes to conversations that are nuanced, losing 93% of your message will likely lead to some serious problems. So, while it can tempting to text about tricky subjects (who doesn't want to avoid eye contact on difficult subjects?) do yourself a favour and set the stage for a successful conversation by scheduling a time where you can both be fully present and connected. You'll thank yourself for it. ;)