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That’s Not What I Meant!

It’s the trouble with texting, isn’t it?

Shooting off a quick text is such an easy way to respond to a question, or propose a change in plans, or apologize for running late.

And maybe the problem is inherent in that phrase, “Shooting off a quick text …”

There’s a lot missing from a text message

That little quote-shaped balloon on our phone screens may contain the right words for any given situation. We might even seek to clarify or elaborate on those words with an emoji or two. Sometimes finding the right image can be kind of fun.

Still, a text can’t begin to convey what we would be saying with our facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. Those missing communication modalities make it possible, and maybe even likely, that our meaning will be muddled.

I bet you can think of a time or two when you’ve wished you could hit rewind on a text you’ve sent, based on the reaction you got. Maybe you were irritated when you hit “send.” Or maybe you were just in a hurry.

Either way, the words flew out of your fingertips, and they landed on the other person’s screen, open for interpretation.

Ah yes. Interpretation.

It’s not always clear, is it, what someone meant when they typed those words we’re reading. Were they trying to insult us? And how, exactly, do we sort that out?

Some people go to great lengths when they’re mystified by a message.

Psychologist and author Maggie Mulqueen says people turn to her for help making out the meaning. “Patients often read me text messages during therapy sessions in hopes that I can decipher them, since without facial cues and tone of voice, it can be challenging to understand the intention of the message.”

Then sometimes we do understand the intention, or we think we do, anyway. And that can be a problem too.  As Mulqueen says, “Text messages often leave the receiver feeling short-changed, confused or devalued.”

And then there’s the response.

I don’t know about you, but I can fire back fast when I feel insulted or dismissed. I’d be better served to put the phone away and leave it alone for a while so I could consider a more careful reply later on. Who actually does that though? Nearly nobody would be my guess.

Maggie Mulqueen says texting “encourages passive — or more often passive-aggressive — behavior, what I call ‘hit and runs.’ Typing on a screen invites impulsive responses. Absent the ability to see the reflection of pain or hurt on someone’s face, it’s easy for people to pound out anger or meanness.”

Haven’t you been a victim of that hit and run somewhere along the line? And maybe you can also think of a time when you’ve been the hitter and runner.

Texting just lends itself to the quick barb. Sometimes that can be a source of humor, but it’s just as likely to be offensive, annoying, or even painful, even if that wasn’t our intention. And that’s even more likely, if it was, in a moment of pique exactly what we intended. The short, quick nature of texting just breeds what Mulqueen calls “emotional illiteracy.”

What to do now?

Texting isn’t going away, that’s for sure. It’s too easy, and too often practical, for any of us to give it up. But surely, it should be possible to minimize the misunderstanding texting can cause.

So, here’s how I plan to make texting a little less fraught, or try to, anyway.

Take a minute.

Some people, I notice, respond to a text hours or even days after I send it. It would behoove me to allow a little lag time myself, especially when I’m annoyed or hurt. No need to fire off an instant reply. Some let-it-settle time would often be a good thing.

Read their text out loud a few times, putting the emphasis on different words.

Sometimes I “hear” the texter in my head, as if I know for certain there was a snarky tone to their text. And, okay, sometimes I’m absolutely right.

Still, there’s room for interpretation, and I’m resolving to use it. What if I just try putting the emphasis on different words, and see if the assumed meaning changes too? Even allowing for the possibility of a less charged message could make a difference.

Choose the text topic wisely.

In Psychology Today, psychologist Jennifer Gilbert says we should “stick to light topics. It’s hard to type out long detailed conversations on text, and a lot of subtlety gets lost.” No kidding. Sometimes that missing subtlety causes confusion. Or irritation. Or fury.

Lately, with lots of communicating to do, I find myself typing way too much in a text. Sometimes I just tell people, “Too much to text. Let’s talk soon.”

That may be the key.

Some things are better said than texted. If the subject goes much beyond superficial, I’ve started plugging in the earbuds to make a call. Ideally, that creates a conversation. It’s true, I sometimes feel ridiculous, calling somebody as if I expect them to pick up the phone. Who answers their phone anymore?

I figure even a voicemail beats a text for conveying meaning and import and certainly feelings. And if that message can lead to a real-time conversation, that’s a win.

Maybe you’ve discovered how to take the trouble out of texting? Post a comment to share your secret.