I know you’ve heard it all before: texting is impersonal, it’s antisocial, and it’s ruined our ability to communicate with each other. Yet we all do it. Why? Because it’s also easy, convenient, and often timely. So why would I call texting the worst form of communication? The answer lies not so much in texting itself, so much as how we are using it to communicate.
When we use it as a messaging system to convey mundane, day-to-day information like, “I’ll be finished at 6:30pm”, “can you get milk on your way home?”, “you have a doctor’s appointment at …”, it can actually be very effective. It’s when we try to expand this from an expression of facts or data to something more abstract – for example, thoughts and feelings – that the message tends to get lost amongst the text. As I see it, there’s three main limitations that texting has over other forms of communication that often causes it to fail.
1. Communication is much more than words
You’ve probably come across the idea that over 90% of communication is non-verbal. While many linguists and sociologists dispute this figure and the ability to actually quantify the contribution of verbal and non-verbal components when communicating, it is generally agreed that effective communication relies significantly on vocal intonation and body language. In other words, how we represent ourselves physically, and how we sound, puts what we have to say – the actual words – into a certain context that the words alone cannot achieve.
Consider this snippet from a text conversation that perhaps all of us are familiar with:
Person A: Are you ok?
Person B: I’m fine.
What was your gut reaction to this? Did you accept Person B’s answer as literal? Did you find it dismissive or evasive? Or did it send a chill down your spine thinking they are anything BUT fine?
The fact is, we cannot know for sure whether Person B really is fine, or whether they are just saying that to avoid (or encourage) further discussion, or whether they are being sarcastic or passive-aggressive, because we have no other information – a look, a tone of voice, a body position – to help us put this statement into context. Person A then has two choices: they can either request more information, or they can interpret the meaning Person B intended.
Many of us don’t make the former choice, because we feel there’s an expectation (either our own, or from the other person) that we understand what is being said to us, so we come up with our own interpretation. The problem is our ability to make that interpretation is not only influenced by the person communicating with us – not just the words they use but our connection to and understanding of them – but also by a whole myriad of internal and external factors affecting our cognitive and emotional state at the time. Consider for a moment how you might interpret Person B’s response if you felt happy, worried, angry, or confused. How does it influence what you’re hearing them say?
And this is only from what appears to be a simple, everyday exchange between two people. Imagine how it is once the content becomes more complicated…
2. We are always communicating, even when we aren’t.
This is another way of expressing a fundamental principle of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP): you cannot not communicate. That is, even if you are not saying something, you are still communicating with someone through your actions. Consider as an example someone listening to you speak: are they leaning forward, focussed on you? Are they leaning back, arms crossed? Are they turned away from you or focused on something else? In each instance, although that person isn’t saying anything, they are still sending you a message.
When you can see someone these non-verbal interactions are generally easier to interpret. When texting, it’s almost impossible. Imagine you are texting back and forth with someone and they suddenly stop responding. You cannot know why they stopped responding until you get some sort of indication from that person. However, as we cannot not communicate, no response can be interpreted as a response in itself. In fact, the longer the ‘silence’ goes on, the more we try to interpret that silence. Did they get interrupted? Did the device they’re using suddenly stop working? Did they get offended by what you said or just lose interest in the conversation? Did they even get your last message? Again, your interpretation of what has happened will be very dependent on the internal and external influences on your own cognitive and emotional state at the time, including the context and perceived importance of the conversation you were having.
3. We have developed an expectation of instant gratification
There was once a time, not too long ago, when we were not always instantly accessible. If you wanted to speak with someone, you either had to know where they were and go to them in person, or you had to call them on the phone and hope they were able (or wanted) to answer, or you had to write them a letter and wait for them to receive it and respond. And as a society, we were quite accepting of that. We appreciated that being able to communicate required timing, effort, and in many cases, patience.
Today, we are all expected to be instantaneously available on demand, and texting is one of the primary causes of this. While we recognise that everyone has their own lives and responsibilities, and therefore may not be available to meet in person or take a phone call, texting is believed to be so unobtrusive that any of us should be able to do it at any time. That’s a problem in two ways.
The first relates back to our point about not being able to not communicate. When we text, we expect a timely, if not instant response. When we don’t get one, the scenario discussed in the second point above plays out.
But there’s also the responder to consider. Receiving a text message is often welcomed, however it can also be invasive. What if you’re at work, or at a family event, or a romantic dinner with your partner and you receive a text; do you answer it? That’s a hard question to answer: if you don’t, how’s the person who sent it going to react? If you do, how’s the person you’re with going to react? Seems like a no one situation, and in many instances, it can be. Either way you are sending a message to both people, and that not be the message you want to convey.
This is not to say we shouldn’t use texting as a means of communicating, in fact it can be a very valuable way of staying in touch with people or conveying important information. However, like any form of communication, texting is only useful if you consider its limitations, and work around those limitations.
Maybe the most effective text you can send someone is, “Hi. Can we get together for a chat?”