This week, a study from the State University of New York Binghamton reported that your texting habits may be getting you into trouble. Celia Klin and her team polled 126 undergraduates from the university and found that students perceived periods in SMS messages to be less “sincere.”
“Text messaging is one of the most frequently used computer-mediated communication (CMC) methods,” researchers said. “The rapid pace of texting mimics face-to-face communication, leading to the question of whether the critical non-verbal aspects of conversation, such as tone, are expressed in CMC.”
Klin’s team is hardly the first to allege that your text messages have a tone problem—and may be making you sound like a jerk. In 2013, the New Republic’s Ben Crair argued that the period is “angry” and “aggressive,” and using line breaks might be a more efficient way to end your thoughts. In order to mimic in-person communication and convey intent, texters have begun using punctuation in creative ways, such as the use of question marks to indicate upspeak or ellipses at the end of a sentence to convey uncertainty. As the New York Times explains, ellipses can convey a “casual, youthful tone,” but they often sound ominous. Similarly, line breaks have a way of turning every conversation into a series of unintentional haikus.
But rumors of the period’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The issue seems to be that not using periods to avoid sounding strident isn’t fixing the issue—which is that in an age of endless means of communication, we still don’t know how to communicate with each other. While the use of periods traditionally indicates a pause in speech, a short break that allows an orator to take a breath and continue speaking, or the end of a thought, the period could mean a number of things in a text—that we’re angry, frustrated, nonplussed, bored, or just plain rude. It becomes a game of riddles when language was codified in order for us all to be better understood.
Why does language exist? In many ways, language is culture itself. For ancient peoples, a shared oral tradition allowed a history to be passed down between generations, and the development of text allowed a means of transcribing that legacy and preserving it for the future. But written communication serves many functions, the most obvious being to pass information between people. If I write down a note for my husband to pick up cat food because we’re out, the basic syntax and grammar I use ensure that our beloved pet doesn’t starve tonight. With the endless amount of things, ideas, and people in existence, language offers a means of conveying the complexity of the universe in easily transmitted and deciphered codes.
Thus, language is meant to simplify, but the way we use it is often anything but simple. Punctuation like ellipses and periods speak to the emotions and inner meanings we might not choose to convey. When you’re worried about the period in a text message, what you’re really concerned about is what’s not being said.
Let’s use the cat food example: If your partner texts, “Please pick up cat food tonight.”, you might think to yourself, “What does he really mean by that?” You might come to the conclusion that he thinks you don’t buy cat food often enough or that you’re not putting in your share—so you respond defensively. You could get into a fight and breakup, all over a teeny, tiny dot.
What’s the best way to solve this dilemma? To not use a period? Killing punctuation won’t remedy the situation; what we need is to say what’s on our minds and communicate more effectively. For instance, a friend texts you that they have an extra ticket to a rock concert and asks if you’d like go with. The problem is that the show is tonight and you have to go home to feed your cat, who has gotten very, very hungry since the previous thought experiment. You say, “Sorry cant.”—with a period at the end of the text. Does excising the punctuation make your message any more apologetic or less dismissive? You could use an exclamation point here or numerous ones (“Sorry cant!!!”) but then you sound like a speed addict.
Instead, if you don’t want to come off like a jerk in your text messages, don’t be a jerk. Try to sound more human. In this case, the best antidote to communication anxiety is to provide context and convey both appreciation for the gesture and regret that you can’t partake. You can’t go, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t want to. “I’m sorry, I can’t go tonight. But thank you so much for thinking of me!” you might text instead. Even better, if you want to ensure that the message is received positively, be proactive. For example, suggest an alternative hangout: “I can’t join you, but I’d love to grab coffee next week.”
For some, these practices might seem pedantic in a medium that was meant to shorten communication. Brevity is exactly why old-school devices like your Nokia TracFone had character limits on SMS, and it’s one of the reasons that texters started leaving out seemingly extraneous punctuation marks—it saves time. But does it really? To me, cutting periods is a lot like texting “tonite” instead of “tonight,” something that might get you back 0.1 seconds of your life but isn’t all that helpful, when you get down to it. I would wager that any spare moments you save by texting “Sorry cant” is annihilated by the amount of time the other person will spend unnecessarily analyzing your message.
Trust me—the problem isn’t that our periods are making us assholes but that we sound rude all on our own. Life is a lot simpler when we inject not only punctuation but more thoughtfulness into our communications with one another. Too often, we treat text messages as a drive-by form of transmission: We text “K” instead of “What a great idea!” and “:)” in place of “Wow, I really love that” or even “Thank you.” It might sound exhausting to go around appreciating each other all the time or saying what’s really on our mind, but using those extra characters won’t just make us better communicators. It’ll make us better people.
Photo via doublecompile/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)