Here is a text message:
“I can’t believe you sent me flowers!”
Here are a few ways this message could be interpreted:
1. “They’re beautiful! I love you! I wasn’t ever really mad at you in the first place.”
2. “Do you really think you can get off that easily? This is a way bigger issue than some stupid flowers are going to resolve. You’re in a deeper hole now.”
3. “You embarrassed me at work. Why would you do that?”
4. “I’m surprised. You don’t seem like the kind of guy who’d send me flowers. I really had lower standards for you.”
5. “They’re ugly.”
If, as they say, 90% of communication in nonverbal, texting leaves a meager 10% to be interpreted and get stressed about. Even something as innocuous as “Thanks for the flowers” would have many of the same possible interpretations.
This context problem is most exaggerated with text messaging. Text messaging is basically instant messaging crossbred with cell phones. But subtract from IMing the "in-front-of-the-computer" context, and subtract from the cell phone the background noise context. These context clues are gone with text messaging; the texter could be anywhere (at a party, in the shower, on the road, out of range), distracted (talking with a friend, sleeping), or simply busy (being mad at you, recharging a dead battery, in a meeting, working).
Without context, much the meaning of the content is left wide open, as the flowers scenario shows. Even if the texter is feeling joy when she writes the text, the receiver may be experiencing a different fear or insecurity and so interpret her text as indignation.
Text messaging is a simple idea, but it could be the most complex form of communication that people are using today, simply for the lack of context it provides for any texting conversation. So I came up with a few good practices for communicating (and conveying context) in text messages. Please offer your own, if you think of any.
1. Being intentionally vague isn’t a good idea. Maybe you mean to be flirtatious, but it may just look like you’re avoiding the question. The more personal the communication the more important it is to be careful how you say it.
2. Use “lame” obvious cues like smiley faces and exclamation points to indicate the accurate emotion.
3. Consider the worst possible interpretation your words could have, or the worst scenario that could result from them.
4. Avoid subtlety, sarcasm or otherwise. Exaggeration can even be difficult.
5. Don’t be impulsive. Consider your words. (This is a good rule for any sort of communication.)
6. Make the implicit explicit.
7. Don’t have conversations via text messaging. This opens the door for every sort of problem.
8. Use texts to communicate information, not feelings. (“Just the facts, ma’am.”) If it's getting personal, personalize it with a phone call or even in person!
There are lots of other rules and dynamics that could be explored, but hopefully this will help you think about it a bit and guard your friendships and relationships from unnecessary harm.