Text messages can’t provide the human contact and perspective that come from true dialogue, but they can encourage laziness and passive-aggressive behavior.
By Maggie Mulqueen, psychologist
It’s just too easy. Delayed on your way to a meeting, you text, “sorry running late.” You leave for work in the morning after a fight with your partner and spend the train ride typing a monologue of hurt and anger. You get a second invitation for Saturday night, so you text the person you originally made plans with: “Apologies, not feeling well, need to cancel.”
On the surface, these texts may seem like an acceptable way to handle daily communication, but they actually are all examples of ways to avoid conflict, from making lying easier to dodging in-person confrontation. Our increasing preference for texting over email and phone calls creates a higher quantity of interactions, but it decreases their quality, harming our relationships. Indeed, it’s a far cry from paying attention and listening to the thoughts and feelings of another person, and it’s missing the human contact and learning that comes from true dialogue.
The problems with texting begin with the way it reduces conversation to words or photos on a screen; the way it converts the interchange of human connection to brief, stilted fragments. Even with a plethora of emojis and exclamation points, the absence of intonation muddles the communication.
As a psychotherapist, I see this phenomenon almost daily, along with the unintended consequences it causes. Patients often read me text messages during therapy sessions in hopes that I can decipher them, since without facial cues and tone of voice, it can be challenging to understand the intention of the message.
Worse, it encourages passive — or more often passive-aggressive — behavior, what I call “hit and runs.” Typing on a screen invites impulsive responses. Absent the ability to see the reflection of pain or hurt on someone’s face, it’s easy for people to pound out anger or meanness. You don’t risk interruption or need to take a breath, but what may serve one person as a chance to clear the air often ends up overwhelming the recipient.
Lying is also easier with texting, since it doesn’t betray the motivation behind the message. Are you texting home to say you’re working late while out for drinks with a coworker? Is your cold really that bad, or is the prospect of another family dinner unappealing? Written words can hide a great deal of emotion, and if forced to leave a voice message or deliver news in person, your lie could come through because of weak intonation or guilt (or both).
And although texting enables more frequent contact, it also can be used to curtail conversation. The best example of this is the egregious way texts are used as preemptive apologies, as in the reflexive “sorrys” that accompany notes one is running late. But is the sender really sorry, or the apology merely a brush-off to keep conflict at bay?
Indeed, preemptive apologies are offered in hopes of not having to deal with the consequence of having offended someone. While I can hear that you are sorry, I also need a chance to say that I am hurt if we are really to resolve the incident. Without the chance to express my feelings, the apology will be less meaningful, as reconciliation is strengthened when both parties have a say. Do I appreciate a text from a patient that she is on her way and will be 15 minutes late? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about why she was late, especially if it’s a pattern.
At root, texting is lazy, and our relationships suffer when we don’t invest in them. A “Happy Birthday!” text — even with cake and champagne emojis — will never bring the same smile as a card in the mail or a phone call. Such actions take time and planning. I’ve had patients show me the texts people have sent them to express condolences after the death of a loved one. No matter how many crying emojis are used, this is just wrong. A card and a stamp take effort that demonstrate the sender understands the importance of the event in the other person’s life. A conversation allows deep emotions to be shared, and the risk involved in opening up this way is not only worth it but necessary for real connection.
From multitasking to abbreviated, one-sided sharing of information that’s supposed to pass as conversation, text messages often leave the receiver feeling short-changed, confused or devalued. That people are in touch through texting with greater frequency and immediacy than ever before means that, ironically, the opportunity for disappointment is also greater. Recently, a patient told me of a text she received from her husband who was at home with her at the time but unwilling to come upstairs and tell her to her face how angry he was. She didn’t know whether to be more upset by what he said or by his behavior.
Our skills for conversing are getting rusty and will only get worse as more people use virtual assistants, online shopping and other apps that help us avoid actually talking to another human being. Texting breeds not just grammar and spelling illiteracy but, more importantly, emotional illiteracy as well.
So if you’re running late, please text, but don’t think that exempts you from talking about it in person. If you want to send a heart emoji, go for it, but don’t forget to tell me you love me when you get home. If I’ve hurt your feelings, by all means text me — to arrange a time when we can actually discuss what happened.
The disappointment, anger and conflict that might arise in this and other authentic conversations don’t have to be scary. Conversations that allow me to hear your voice, see your expressions and support true dialogue are still the gold standard for bringing us closer. A good conversation is the best antidote to loneliness that I know. And for that to happen, please silence your phone and leave it in your pocket. Then, let’s talk.