Text messages and my shortcomings as a social human.

I hung out with a longtime friend on Saturday night. Well, afternoon and evening, really. Being old, by 10pm, we were done, and back at my house. Exhausted, we said goodbye and he took off. I showered and got into bed. Then we had a 45-minute text message conversation, mostly about his iPhone, which I was helping troubleshoot. But as I fell asleep, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is it about text messaging that is so unavoidably appealing to so many people? I love it myself, and prefer it in many social scenarios. I tried to distill it down to a few key elements to understand it better. This is what I landed on:

  1. Time investment
  2. Social grace
  3. Psychological/cognitive load

There are factors spread across these three areas that I think resonate with people on different levels, depending on who you are and how you interact with the people with whom you communicate. Picture it as a pie chart, rearranging percentages based on situation or personality. I’m going to examine these from my own perspective, but I’d be curious to know if I’m right about these for other people, and if so, how the percentages fall at any given time.

Time investment, or ‘why would I want to sit on the phone with you?’

I recall being a 7th grader when my parents decided it was time for me to have a telephone in my room. I got to pick out the one I wanted (even then, I was pragmatic; nothing fancy–a nice keypad with rubbery keys and a slim design) and they got me my own line. This was probably because we used our house line for my dad’s business as well as our family stuff. Either way, it was a big deal. I spent a lot of time on that phone that year. I remember calling friends and just laying there watching TV or doing nothing at all, in almost complete silence, for hours. Teenagers are weird.

Now, time spent on the phone is purely a tactical measure. If I have to be on the phone, you’d better well believe it’s to accomplish a task or set of objectives that I literally can not complete in any other way. The notion of sitting on the phone talking to someone for hours is simply exhausting no matter how I picture it. In fact, I’m getting a neck ache just thinking about it. For a variety of reasons, my time is so much more precious now than when I had my burgeoning 7th grade agenda meticulously organized in my Trapper Keeper. I don’t think I’m alone here, either. Anyone with small children would probably agree that free time just isn’t what it used to be. And even if you consider something like a phone connected to a Bluetooth headset, you’re still expending mental energy to maintain that phone call as you do other things. It just isn’t tenable anymore for many of us.

Texting is easier, quicker, and accepted in almost all situations. I say almost all because there are still an obvious number of things that absolutely require phone calls–family emergencies, relationship issues of any kind, etc.

Social grace, or ‘did you really just say that?’

Our mouths work very differently when we speak in a conversational context with other people as opposed to when we are thinking alone and can form words within the walls of our minds. Everyone has muttered something that probably didn’t really need to come out, and regardless of whether it’s embarrassing, destructive, unpleasant, or merely a misstatement, we recognize it and feel it. The more magnanimous individuals among us brush this off to make others feel better, but there’s something to be said for having some semblance of forethought and tact prior to speaking.

I feel like the slight delay sending a text message affords us allows me to reflect, even for a moment, on what I think I want to say. I can pause, process, and respond in a way that speaking in real-time doesn’t always afford me. I like to think I’m pretty quick on my feet anyway, and can feel fairly comfortable speaking extemporaneously about a lot of things to all kinds of different folks, but even still, I know I’m not conversationally infallible. A joke may land flat, I may inadvertantly insult someone who I’ve only just met, or I might just be an asshole thinking I’m being delightful. I try to be cognizant of these moments, but they still come up from time to time. Text messages give me that added advantage of stopping myself for a heartbeat to do a quick assessment.

There’s a flip side to this, of course. Context, sarcasm, tone, and a great many other things can be lost, mistranslated, or otherwise morph in the worst of ways in the course of a text message conversation. It’s very easy to make the same mistakes you would in a spoken conversation with typed words. And emoji only goes so far.

Psychological/cognitive load, or ‘sweet mother of mercy, just shut up for a minute’

I am someone who has a finite amount of patience for speaking of any kind. If I’m embroiled in a conversation that I can’t find a way out of, or I’m tired of, or whatever, I try to be kind (operative word: try) and see my way clear to another part of the room. The bathroom and I are intimately acquainted with this little dance. Talking can be exhausting! Being around people is tiring! I am totally outing myself as a hermit-in-waiting, but I don’t care. I used to think it was funny to just wander away quietly, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m not a Wes Anderson character, and that this kind of behavior just makes me a dick.

Text messages allow me to be the very best dick I can be. I have a little kid. Anything can happen. I have a pregnant wife who watches that kid most of the day and needs respite when I get home. I’m a busy guy at work and have many obligations. I occasionally operate a motor vehicle and I make a great effort to do so safely. There is no end to the amount of reasons I can’t respond to you right this minute, or had to wander away from our text conversation. And if you’re going to get bent out of shape about that because I was nice enough to turn read receipts on, I’ve got some pro tips on not caring. Just ask. This freedom is intoxicating. This actually builds on the previous two elements: there’s an asynchronous time factor working in my favor, as well as the delicate social balance of not being obnoxious to someone in person. This is my pool, and I am Michael Fucking Phelps when it comes to this shit.

I’ve been texting for years now. I never get tired of it. I think my love for it grows every day. And when I love something, I guess I find it enjoyable to examine why. It helps me understand myself a little more, and I’d say it’s a valuable exercise. Even if it’s through an asinine blog post, it’s worth something to stop and think about our motivations around certain activities. Self-reflection by way of emoji poop. Sounds about right.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.