Talking By Text Sucks (& How)

Particularly in recent years, reading & writing have taken over our lives. We communicate primarily by text an increasing amount of the time. Facebook, Twitter, email, IM, SMS, blogs, forums, the list goes on.

There are some very real problems with communicating by text.

pic by alex guerra


Unless both parties are typing an equal amount, any text based conversation is going to seem very one sided very quickly. In fact, not just a roughly equal amount of text, but an equal amount of thought, energy & attention (eg, not just blathering for the sake of word count)

This isn’t how regular conversations work though. If you’re face-to-face and actively listening, you are communicating back, a lot: with body language, intonation (even if you’re just saying “go on”), energy, presence, being, even touching. There’s a lot going on that isn’t spoken.

Particularly being an active listener (where you’re really paying attention to the person you’re listening to) you’re communicating a hell of a lot. With zero words.

Depending on who you ask, as much as 93% of communication is non verbal. Of course, all of that is lost via text.

If someone doesn’t reply to you at all, you get exactly zero information¬† – unless of course you’re able to deduce something from what they didn’t reply to.

With so much of how we normally communicate unavailable to us, imbalances occur very easily.

pic by naunau


The other thing that text loses completely is context. In person, it’s possible to see if the other person is distracted, tired, stressed or has just spilt coffee on themselves. Via text, you have none of this, unless they explicitly tell you.

In the days of writing letters this may not have been such a big deal. Writing a letter a week is low volume enough that whatever is immediately happening in your day will have negligible effect on the words that are sent. However, these days so much of communcation is via text – email, im, twitter, facebook, texting, you name it. There’s so much, & it’s all day every day.

It’s quite possible that something you took to be incredibly serious & upsetting just happened to be right after they got scratched by their cat, or spilt coffee in their lap.

Now that’s environmental context – there may be tone coming through the message that is actually utterly irrelevant to the conversation.

The other thing that’s very easy to lose commonly occurs in formats that allow for multiple overlapping conversations at once – twitter, irc, im etc. It’s quite common for conversational context to be lost. A statement may be made, but because of the overlapping, it becomes unclear what it’s in reply to. We need to stop, reconnect the threads again & then continue. Or, worse yet, we don’t realise there’s been the loss of context & instead get completely the wrong message.

A third difficulty is how hard it can be to both accurately convey and interpret such nuances as sarcasm.  People typically over-estimate their ability to convey sarcasm and their ability to correctly identify it. Online this can be deadly.

pic by krazy dad/jbum

Building Relationships

The combination of the above two – asymmetrical & contextual difficulties, mean that text communication is frightfully prone to misunderstandings. Some studies say that as much as 50% of text communication is misunderstood.

In terms of building a relationship then, while it is possible to do this over text, you’re making life a lot harder for yourself. Missing out on many subtle sub-cues, making it harder than ever to communicate clearly, and so on.

Additionally unless you love text, you’re immediately disadvantaged. If you express yourself better verbally, or physically, you’re just plain out of luck.

The worst situation is if one of you is someone that enjoys & is good at text communication, & the other isn’t (or primarily communicates through another modality).

I’ve met some people for example who can’t write an email to save themselves, and yet in person are an utter delight, like a sunbeam dancing on a rainbow. Obviously the only solution here is to make sure you always live in the same city, so you get to fully enjoy the wonderfulness that is them.

pic by abhi

With all these limitations, difficulties & complications, how many otherwise potentially wonderful friendships are lost to text? Who really knows.

All I can recommend is this:

  1. Understand, be aware & compensate for the limitations & distortions of communicating via text
  2. Get the hell out of it into a much richer medium as soon as you possibly can