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The Big Text Message Blunder

Published on September 18, 2017

(Bad words alert. Maybe bust out the headphones before you hit play.)

Have you ever felt frustrated or confused by a text message?

Of course you have. We all have. Not all of us get quite as worked up as Keegan does in the “Text Message Confusion” skit above, though—or if we do, we stop short of threatening our friends with a spiked baseball bat.

The point is, it’s not that hard to miss the meaning behind a text message. And, when in doubt about the meaning, we tend to assume the worst.

Why is this?

And how can we keep it from happening?

Well, for starters…

We’re Not That Great at Communication

“As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted. … We never understand each other.” ― Marcel Duchamp

The simple answer to our first question is that humans aren’t that great at communication. Even when speaking directly to someone’s face, we have trouble expressing basic thoughts and feelings. Remove the visual clues, and suddenly it gets harder to transfer your moods and million-dollar ideas to someone else’s mind.

Take writing, for example. From the ancient days of deities inscribing stone tablets to the modern days of dudes doodling on tablet computers, it’s always been a bit tricky to communicate using only the written word. You can change the form from stylus and clay, to quills and vellum, to pencil and paper, to computers and touchscreens … but the communication problems tend to stick around. You’ll find this to be the case as far back in history as you go.

It’s no different with modern mobile technology, although it’s interesting to note the clarity in the air when Motorola’s Martin Cooper placed the world’s first mobile phone call in April 1973. He rang up his competitor Joel Engel at AT&T and delivered a crystal-clear message—you just got crushed by the underdog. Cooper later told the BBC how it went down:

“I said ‘Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cellphone, a real, handheld, portable cellphone.’ There was a silence at the other end. I suspect he was grinding his teeth.”

Just for fun, here’s an older Marty horsing around with the original cellphone and a much newer Motorola model:

Man with white hair and beard dressed in a suit and tie, and holding a Motorola DynaTAC in his left hand and a modern cellphone in his right

Smartphones are pretty much required tech for existing on Earth today, notwithstanding all the talk about how they’re responsible for destroying a generation and killing grammar and making us walk into traffic. Everybody has a mobile device, and everybody’s using it to communicate with others—or miscommunicate, as it were.

At least we’ve got Animoji now, right?

Why We Misunderstand Texts

“We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.” – Rudyard Kipling

The next time someone waxes eloquent to you about how texting is killing grammar, remind them that the linguistic aids we observe in texting—abbreviations, initialisms, emoticons, et cetera—aren’t new at all. Trace the evolution of human language and you’ll find all kinds of examples to support this statement.

Texting is, however, one of the best modern examples of humans miscommunicating. We’ve simply reached the point in history where we’re doing it with a new writing genre (or language, depending on who’s talking)—textese, which happily sacrifices grammar and punctuation for the sake of efficiency. The style has changed quite a bit since the first text was sent. For instance, when Wayne Pearson typed LOL in an online chat room for the very first time in history, he was literally LOLing (according to Wayne Pearson). But “nobody using LOL has actually laughed out loud since at least 2015,” writes Jessica Bennett in The New York Times. It means something different now.

So, why do we misunderstand texts? The answer doesn’t have anything to do with grammar or writing genres. It’s much more basic. As Key & Peele so hilariously demonstrate in the video above, a text message just doesn’t carry the full weight of what you’re trying to communicate. It carries very little weight, in fact. Here’s Kim Schneiderman writing in Psychology Today:

“UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian found that 58 percent of communication is through body language, 35 percent through vocal tone, pitch, and emphasis, and a mere 7 percent through content of the message.”

If you’ve ever felt trapped by your own words, well, that might be the reason why.

A man and woman holding phones, viewed at an angle through a window with panes

It doesn’t help that we’re egocentric, either. We tend to take everything the wrong way, or the worst way, when we lack prosodic cues.

“Without the benefit of vocal inflections or physical gestures, it can be tough to tell e-sarcastic from e-serious, or e-cold from e-formal, or e-busy from e-angry. Emoticons and exclamation points only do so much,” writes Eric Jaffe in Fast Company’s Co.Design. “Digital miscommunication wouldn’t be much of a problem if we always adopted the most optimistic or generous view of an ambiguous email or text.”

But we don’t always do that.

Furthermore, as Rick Nauert notes in Psych Central, “it’s often just as difficult for friends as it is for strangers to determine emotion in text messages, even if friends are confident in their ability to do so.”

Don’t worry, there’s a silver lining here. Let’s switch gears now and talk about…

How to Be a Good Texter

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

In “The Emotion for Opening the Text Message,” University of Illinois professor John Gallagher (then a Ph.D. candidate) analyzes the texting habits of students in his writing class and makes the case that emotions can be correctly conveyed in texts—if proper care is taken to do so. It’s something you can learn, he reasons, a cooperative effort between the sender and recipient.

“Good texters, as students referred to those who frequently text, accounted for tones and the emotional response of the receiver,” Gallagher writes. “Bad texters did not account for such tone or emotion.”

“There was a way to be a good or bad author of text messages, an etiquette based on tone,” he continues. “Accordingly, feelings were part of the composing process of text messaging. Text messages, in this way, were and are emotional. I realized texting made authors not only aware of the fundamental concept of audience but also aware of the audience’s emotions.”

Silhouetted woman sitting at water's edge holding a cellphone as the sun sets

Clearly, we can be good texters if we want to. Here are a few tips to that end:

1. Choose your words with care.

Let’s face it, we do tend to be a bit egocentric. To become good texters, we need to think about our audience and their emotions. Now is the time to put on our Good Texter hats and start choosing our words and emoticons carefully.

2. Don’t assume the worst.

As we’ve noted, the human temptation is to see a text and read negative emotion into it. But “we are better off reading texts with the assumption that the texter has good intentions,” writes Tchiki Davis in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. This will likely take some practice. If it helps, just visualize Keegan in his kitchen screaming, and maybe the silly visual will put a smile on your face and a positive thought in your mind.

3. Don’t assume you know how a person feels.

We’re going with another quote from Davis here: “Always double-check with yourself to see if you are drawing conclusions based on some emotional information or if you are making assumptions based solely on the context the person is in.” You never know how someone’s day might be going—and remember, even close friends can have trouble figuring out the real meaning behind text messages.

4. Ask for more information.

Uncertain about a text? Just ask for clarification. Text them back and say, “Hey, what did you mean by _____?” Better yet, give them a quick call and bring those vocal clues back to the conversation.

5. Schedule some face time.

Finally, don’t forget about the face-to-face factor. Try talking to your fellow texter in person. If that doesn’t help resolve miscommunication, well, we’re back to square one.

Final Thoughts, Brought to You by Machine Learning

While researching this fun little blognovel, we came across an interesting solution to text message miscommunication. It’s called EmotionPush, and it was developed by researchers from Academia Sinica (Taipei, Taiwan) and Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA). We’ll let the abstract do the talking:

“Instant messaging and push notifications play important roles in modern digital life. To enable robust sense-making and rich context awareness in computer mediated communications, we introduce EmotionPush, a system that automatically conveys the emotion of received text with a colored push notification on mobile devices. EmotionPush is powered by state-of-the-art emotion classifiers and is deployed for Facebook Messenger clients on Android. The study showed that the system is able to help users prioritize interactions.”

It’s certainly nice to have some help from machines, and perhaps EmotionPush and similar systems will eventually help us become better texters. But here’s the thing: The current version of Homo sapiens seems way too buggy when it comes to communication. We really just need to have our brains rewired.

Maybe the best approach for now is to simply be mindful of our tendency to miss meaning and assume the worst, and with this awareness in place we’ll be better suited to consider our audience and build stronger relationships with the smartphone-clutching wise ones all around us. Because when we get better at relationships, we’ll get better at texting, too.

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Thanks for reading The Big Text Message Blunder! Got any thoughts to share? Head over to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+ and leave a comment. Feel free to use textese. But please leave your spiked baseball bats at home.

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