The Perils of Texting
Blog entry by Cody Harper MSW RSW
The written word, while certainly an artform in and of itself, is not and should never be thought of as an acceptable substitute for in-person communication. I know I am hardly breaking new ground by making this point. Yet, despite knowing this, many of us fall into this trap every single day.
Admittedly, it is virtually impossible these days to have a relationship without texting. It’s just too convenient, too accessible. In fact, for some relationships, texting (either through SMS or online chat) is the relationship. The benefits of texting are fairly obvious. We can stay in touch more often and over vast distances. Texting also offers a great deal of control over the conversation. It allows us to choose our words more carefully and vary the pace of our responses.
However, texting is a severely limited form of conversation prone to misunderstandings and negative bias, especially when it comes to emotionally charged conversations.
Nothing But Words
One of the most widely known statistics in communications is the 7-38-55 Rule:
- 7% of the meaning is in the words that are spoken
- 38% of the meaning is in the way that the words are said
- 55% of the meaning is non-verbal (facial expressions, eye contact, body language, touch, presence and engagement, situational factors, etc.) (Mehrabian, 1981)
If this statistic is true, then a whopping 93% of what we mean in a conversation is lost by using texting alone. Now, this was published in the 1980s, long before texting even existed, so the issue is probably more complex. For instance, the use of emojis does offer some way of communicating facial expression and even body language and engagement. We can also send pictures, selfies, animated gifs, memes, and videos.
Texting is Terrible At Reassurance
The problem is that texting is very poor at conveying reassurance. When we get into a fight with our partner, friend, or family member, we are usually never fighting about what we think we’re fighting about; we are usually fighting because we perceive an emotional disconnection and block from the other person. When we fight with a loved one, we are usually seeking some form of reassurance (i.e. Are you there for me? Can I rely on you? Will you hurt me? etc.) Now, you can try to reassure someone with just words alone, but you probably won’t be very successful. So much of how we reassure our loved ones and feel reassured by them is through non-verbal communication, such as touch, eye contact, body language, etc.
Take On Me
Another thing to consider are mirror neurons. All of us have specific neurons in our brain that fire up when we perform an action but also fire up when we see someone else performing an action. What this means is, if my partner is smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling also fire up, leading to a cascade of feelings that I would normally associate with smiling. Indeed, mirror neurons are absolutely essential to human communication and empathy.
But if I can’t see my partner’s face, their body, nor hear the tone of their voice, those mirror neurons don’t fire at all. This makes it even less likely that I will be able to empathize with my partner and understand their perspective, and vice versa.
I can have the Court Reporter Read That Back To You...
I have heard this story from so many of my clients: they describe a fight they had with their partner. They describe it almost as if it were a movie. They describe the fight in very intricate detail, emphasizing every word that was said. And then my client will pull out their phone and say, “Here, let me read it to you…”.
This brings up another point about arguing over text: the fight becomes a document, and it’s fairly likely that this document will be brought up in future fights. Furthermore, that document can become embedded in our memories as we reread it, further plunging our beliefs about the relationship into negativity. This can also make moving on from a fight far more challenging, as every time we reread the document it sets us back.
If You Can't Say Something Nice
So should we just stop texting our loved ones altogether? Of course not. But we need to change the way we communicate over text. Perhaps more importantly, we need to change our expectations about what texting is even capable of.
First and foremost, recognize that the vast majority of feelings and attitudes you might be trying to express to your loved one cannot be done by words alone. If you have something serious, emotionally charged, or deeply interpersonal to say, you must say it in person. Period. A phone call or video chat might suffice if there is no other option, but again, you need to recognize the limitations those forms of communication have.
Keep your texts positive. Keep them concise. And do not, I repeat, DO NOT ever text these words: “We need to talk”. The human mind has a negative bias, and this message will send your loved one’s mind reeling. If you truly need to talk, tell your loved one in person, or not at all.
Texting Dos and Don'ts
- Let your partner know you are thinking of them
- Share funny or interesting videos, pictures, memes, etc.
- Schedule plans together
- Share neutral information
- Express admiration and love
- Explore sexting and sharing intimate photos with a romantic partner (with consent)
- Keep your texts short and concise, allow your loved one time to respond
- Argue over text
- Discuss serious or emotionally charged issues
- Share bad news
- Write long paragraphs or multiple blocks of text in a row
- Treat a text conversation like it was an in-person conversation
- Treat the document of the text conversation as evidence
- “We need to talk”
If you do have an argument over text (which can and does happen), always remember that this argument had very little chance of providing reassurance for either of you. It is also very likely that the argument was confusing and full of misunderstandings. Find the time to meet with your loved one to do that conversation all over again, but this time, do it in-person.
Article by: Cody Harper
Cody is a therapist and social worker working out of Calgary and Cochrane, Alberta, Canada. He believes that beyond the education, the training, or the credentials that a counsellor may have, the most effective means of growth and positive change is shared human connection and a strong alliance with the client.