GenerationTEXT: How to Avoid Miscommunicating Through Text

GenerationTEXT: How to Avoid Miscommunicating Through Text

Face it – we live in a world where text messaging has become the primary form of communication. According to Pew Research Center, 81% of Americans text regularly. According to Gallup, text is the most used form of communication for American adults under 50. And that makes sense, right? It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s accessible. Bored at a weekly office meeting and it’s your Dad’s birthday? BOOM – send a text. At the movies on a date and your BFF calls? No prob – send a text. In an emerging world full of advanced technology that offers us access to practically everything and anything in merely an instance, text messaging has become the preferred choice of communication over phone calls. Yet, unfortunately, the more immersed we have become with text messaging as the primary form of communication, the more out of touch we have become with human emotion. With text messaging, there’s no way to hear someone’s tone, to see someone’s body language, to see someone’s facial expressions that can easily change the delivery of one’s words. Text messaging opens up the door for different interpretations of the sender’s messages to the recipient, which can often lead to miscommunication. This, I know. As someone who sends and receives on average 3,900 text messages a month, I've had my fair share of lost in translation text messages.

In law school, I was taught that words mean everything. One single word can change the entire meaning behind a legal contract or rule of law. In Caminetti v. US, the Court found that if a statute’s language is plain and clear, “the duty of interpretation does not arise, and the rules which are to aid doubtful meanings needs no discussion.” This construction has been instilled in my head so tightly that I have subconsciously applied it into my personal and professional life, often to my detriment. 

At the top of 2016, I found myself frustrated with the continuous text message I engaged in with family members, friends, co-workers and significant others over trivial miscommunication casualties. I wanted to express my anguish creatively by publishing an article on text message etiquettcy as a way to mitigate this emerging transformation of primary communication and provide guidance as to effective communication with one another via text message. Of course, in doing so, I looked at myself as an effective text message communicator, someone who took the time to be articulate, descriptive, and cognizant of the messages I was sending out to others. In fact, I even began writing a few rules that quickly came to mind based on my experience in text messaging over the years: when sending a text message joke, don’t simply make the joke, provide some indication to the recipient that you are joking, whether it be by adding a simple “lol,” a smiley emoji face, or even by bluntly providing a disclaimer that the message is a joke to leave little room for misinterpretation.  

Then, I met a guy through an online dating app. We messaged back and forth, which turned into us exchanging numbers and text messages. Intimate text message conversations turned into phone calls and FaceTimes, which shortly turned into in-person conversations, dates, and ultimately exclusivity. As things began to blossom between us, and text messaging became more the primary way we communicated during the weekday, we progressively engaged in awkward text message conversations in which somewhere, somehow down the line, not only was he getting lost in SMS translation...but I, the text message guru, was lost as well. 

“I really want to go to the movies this weekend.”

“Oh, ok.”

“What do you mean, ‘oh ok’?”


 "I have the worst hangover ever.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have drunk so much last night.”

“…was that shade?”

The miscommunication via text messaging became endless.  Sometimes, there were text message battles that started with one misinterpreted message which led to an ongoing, back and forth, exchange of text messages that lasted the entire workday. I, a stickler or the use of words, and he, a more brief and less descriptive text messenger, often found ourselves troubled as to why one was not understanding the other. Subconsciously, I treated the arguments like a trial – I would cross-exam my boyfriend and attempt to discredit his credibility by pointing out his “vague” or “unclear” message with a screenshot as evidence (as if he was not aware of what he sent). Needless to say, this landed us downhill in the relationship.

Over time, I found this similar miscommunication issue was not only impacting my personal life, but my professional life as well. Even in the legal field, amongst other attorneys who are trained to pay attention to detail, miscommunication occurs all the time via e-mails, where one person may provide unclear instructions or assume that the recipient understands the intent of the message. If I had a dollar for every snappy e-mail I received from a superior attorney about me not following some alleged detailed instruction or my lack of accurate interpretation of the law, I would be rich. True to form, I countered those exchanges with the literal quotes by the sender or the literal words of the rule of law applied. This back and forth mantra in the workplace that I at first took great pride in eventually blessed me with a reputation of being argumentative, aggressive and unable to take constructive criticism. I was over it. Completely. I found myself frustrated as to why I was constantly experiencing issues in which I engage in text messaging or e-mail conversation with another person who lacked effective communication or the decency to acknowledge their shortcomings when I have called them out and provided them, specifically, with where they faltered in their vague choice of words. Why leave room for multiple interpretations of what you are intending to communicate? It made sense to me…

Then it hit me: WAIT…it’s not just them…it’s me too. All this time I spent harping on the importance of each word choice used when speaking to another person as if this was some golden rule that everyone must abide by, that I didn’t realize that I too play a role in the problem with word interpretations via text messaging – words are imperfect symbols to communicate intent. They are ambiguous and change in meaning over time. 

In American pop culture, words have changed meaning several times; the list of words that have been one meaning in one decade or era has slowly changed over time in a proceeding era is endless. For example, “Catfish” in the 1990s has broadened to an action verb – someone who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent purposes whether it be for emotional or financial gain. Now, with the revolution of technology and the evolution of word definitions, it's inevitable to encounter a form of miscommunication with another person.

Miscommunication in text messages can come not just in the word choice of the sender but also in the recipient’s interpretation of the sender’s intent. It took me a long time to grasp this concept, but I finally realized that all parties involved can play a part in how one simple word can drastically change the interaction. 

Text messaging has impacted the way in which people interact with one another. The timing of the interaction, the tone detection, and the diction is different in text messaging vs. face to face encounters. While it’s not rocket science, it’s also not realistic to expect everyone to follow one specific method in text messaging communication. All we can do is talk things out and provide further explanation between each other’s intent when these obstacles come up. So, with a newfound perspective on the revolution of text messaging, instead of attempting to guide you with some hard and fastened customary code of polite behavior in electronic communication, I will leave you with a few principles to consider the next time you send a text:

Don’t read too deeply into text messages

Chill – it’s just a text. Text messages are, by nature, short-handed messages intended to be quickly delivered and received; text messaging welcomes the use of quick acronyms that allow us the ability to deliver a thought in a matter of seconds. It’s unrealistic to expect each person to write a detailed, dissertation via text that has been spelled checked and grammar checked. If that were the case, text messaging would not be as popular as it is today!

Don’t always expect an immediate response at all hours of the day

Yes, text messaging and e-mails offer us instant, direct communication but that doesn’t mean that the recipient is accessible 24/7. Oftentimes we forget that the mentality once upon a time when telephones were the only form of telecommunication was that, if the person does not pick up, it is because they are unavailable. With text messaging, there is a subconscious expectation that people are always available to respond and if there isn’t an immediate response from the recipient, it’s because the sender is being ignored. No. The automatic assumption that a delayed response is due to one person ignoring the other person often leads to unnecessary conflict.

Take solace in the fact that your delivery will not always be accurately interpreted as intended by the recipient

There is always going to be a risk that the sender will misinterpret the recipient and vice-versa. It happens. That’s life. The key is patience and understanding – take the time to talk through the language barrier and know that the communication works two ways – it will never be one person’s responsibility to keep the communication clear and effective. 

Ask for clarity if there is uncertainty

Instead of wasting time trying to ascertain what the sender actually wanted, just ask for clarity about the sender’s intent behind the message. 

Know when to pick up the damn phone

Sometimes, it’s just really that simple. Pick up the phone and talk it out. A simple argument that can be resolved in 5 minutes over the phone can last an entire day via text messaging, which in turn leads to an unproductive, stressful day. So rather than try to decipher a cryptic text message without the tone or body language attached, why not pick up the phone and talk through the language barrier? Texting is great. It really is. But some good old fashion direct communication is even greater. Always keep that in mind when communicating electronically. 

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