The Visceral Nature of Email and Texting

Texting EmojiI am a connoisseur of click-bait. But I rarely click. Sometimes, though… Yesterday, I saw this headline, Study Proves Only Jerks End Their Texts With a Period. I didn’t want to click. I felt like I was being manipulated. Just the same, I figured I might get some useful information. And the grammarian in me wanted to know how a mere bit of punctuation could take an ordinary woman and turn her into Jerk-Woman — strange woman from another planet who can set emotional tone with the typing of a single stop.

After clicking over, I saw that it was actually fairly serious. I’ve even wondered about it in the past. Consider this text message, “See you tomorrow.” It comes off as distinctly uninspired. It’s emotional content ranges from Eeyore depression to Monty Python, “Piss off!” On the other hand, this seems very nice: “See you tomorrow!” So the study isn’t about what I had thought: not using a stop at all, but about the apparent need for text messages that are filled with exclamation points! Because everything we say will be twisted if we don’t! They will read the last syllable down and not up! And we can’t have that.

There is one person I work with very closely. She has the habit of filling her email with smiling emojis. At first I thought it was kind of odd. But I’ve come to think that she’s just protecting herself. There is something about electronic communication that makes us all really insecure. In the past, I’ve found myself fine tuning tweets so they can’t be misinterpreted. And it always ends up with me canceling the tweet, because it just can’t be done.

I wonder why it is that we can’t give each other the benefit of the doubt. There is another person who I used to work with. She was older and had been in the computer trenches long before the dot-com boom. And her philosophy was that email was fast and imperfect. You had to assume the goodwill of the person writing to you. I’ve always remembered that. But it is hard to do. When you read something — especially if it is meant specifically for you — it hits you in a visceral way. It isn’t an intellectual process. So it is no surprise that “see you tomorrow” becomes “go away.”

Talking, on the other hand, is amazing. I used to know this storyteller and performance artist. He frequented a number of pubs that I did. And one time he revealed to me that he was hard of hearing. So in a bar setting, he usually could not make out the words that people were saying to him. But with all the other information that people provided in terms of tone and pacing and body language, he got 90% of it. I’m sure he did! This is probably why people are usually struck by my fairly forceful writing style and my conversational style. I’m not sure how to describe the latter, but everything about it is designed to say, “Are you with me?! It isn’t my intention to offend!”

Given that, you would think that people close to me would know better. But I don’t think they do. So now I have something else to worry about. My texts must end with an exclamation mark! Because I am not saying piss off! I’m just going to bed!

33 thoughts on “The Visceral Nature of Email and Texting

  1. You do come off slightly grim in your emails even though I know for sure you are not intending to be that way since I cannot imagine you have two personalities living in your head.

    • Don’t be too sure! But I’m afraid the email seems that way because it has me in “editor” mode. And in that regard, I’m kind of like that mean teach you had in high school, who maybe you realize was helpful ten years later. I don’t mean to be that way. I don’t even think I am that way. But I’ve gotten enough feedback from people (and writers quitting) to figure it must be true.

      • I had that teacher! Her name was Mrs. Robinson.

        At least I know I suck at writing so it was not unexpected or taken to be anything other than helpful.

        • Ah. When did you stop sucking at writing? I had a Spanish teacher. I was horrible at Spanish. But I learned a lot about English.

          • I have not stopped, what are you talking about?

            Of course it doesn’t help I have only gotten negative feedback as a writer from someone who does a much much better job at it than I do (a local lawyer who is brilliant and helped me write a few legal decisions that were seas of red ink.) Or other commenters on a message board like this one. The last one I got was when I used the phrase tour de force in what I thought was the correct way but the other person snottily told me I was wrong and therefore a neanderthal.

            People are much more willing to point out you are wrong then when you are correct so I naturally assume my writing is subpar at best with the negative reviews of it.

            • I believe the Tour de Force is a bicycle race in the French province of Force. Right?

              It just sounds to me like you’ve run into some pedants. Your writing seems fine to me. Although I wish you would use the serial comma. All right thinking people do.

              • *googles serial comma*

                Oh the Oxford comma. I try to remember to stick it in but I often forget because I stay out of that fight.

                No, Tour de Force is what happens when Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia go around visiting different planets. I think.

                • I refuse to call it the Oxford comma. First, we one the Revolutionary War. Second, we have more nuclear weapons.

                  That’s good! Maybe when the movie comes out, that’s what they will call the media tour.

                  • We one the war? Did you do that on purpose?

                    Probably they should call it that but I don’t think the marketing department is that clever.

                    • Nope. I like homophone errors because they highlight the fact that language really is aural and writing is not natural.

        • From years of adult-education classes (yes, I finished my worthless degree at the tender age of 40, it took me that long) I was astounded how many people thought “I can’t write.”

          There are two aspects to writing. One is knowing the language, the other is knowing what you want to say. The first is purely technical, and it always blew my mind how many immigrant students with quite a lot to say felt ashamed of their writing because the language wasn’t perfect. Well, I’d rather read their occasional English errors for ten hours than spend two minutes reading George Will.

          The second is much harder, as we read so much “serious writing” that is nothing more than platitudes with better vocabulary. You have a point of view which is interesting, and you have a firm grasp of English. Again, it’s much better than George Will (or Thomas Friedman, whom, if I didn’t know better, I’d say was thinking in Martian, typing in Esperanto, and using Google translate to finalize his posts in English.)

          Of course I’m rarely misunderstood. I am a real fucking idiot. I tend to lash out in moments of exhaustion and frustration and those things have much more impact than the stuff I think about before I write it. So there’s something to be said for being shy about one’s writing — you never just verbally vomit all over the place.

          Still, one shouldn’t be so shy as to distrust one’s better instincts. And yours seem pretty good to me.

          • As I think I noted elsewhere, in my editing of “professional” writers, I rarely get to do any copy editing. It isn’t that they don’t need it, although they aren’t bad. But the larger issues just dominate everything. Too many people think what defines good writing is the distinction of “who” from “whom.” But it isn’t. It is almost always whether or not you are telling a compelling story. And that is often ineffable.

          • I tend to compare my writing to much better writers like Frank or local people and my writing always comes off as worse.

            Comments on a blog post though are much different then essays or written legal decisions so my comments are mostly fine as writing goes but if you want me to write an essay, they will be riddled with everything wrong except spelling errors. Yay little squiggly red line!

      • I sense mostly kindness and enormous patience with a little bit of constructive criticism thrown in. But instant e-communication is SO visceral. It feeds on itself. Shorthand A leads to misunderstanding B which leads to shorthand C creating misunderstanding D and so on.

        Maybe alien anthropologists a billion years from now will have intercepted a fraction of our e-transmissions, mostly the e-stuff, and conclude we couldn’t communicate in anything but hieroglyphic emojis.

        • A big part of any writing is what the reader brings to it. And what we mostly bring to it is our intense insecurity about everything.

    • No doubt! Very witty. These days, it’s also like the difference between human rights and #humanrights. No-one cares about the former, and if anyone cares about the latter, it’s only for eighteen hours or so.

        • I guess if Twitter has improved us for a few hours, we’re advancing? Like evolution and stuff?

          • I don’t think it has, unfortunately. It mostly seems to bring on the “pitchfork and torches” Frankenstein freak out about this or that person who said or did the wrong thing. I haven’t noticed people caring all that much unless they can turn it into a stick to hit someone with. But Elizabeth knows Twitter better. Maybe she has some ideas.

            • The only positive affect I have noticed is that since a lot of the newsmedia on TV is lazy they usually just use whatever is trending on Twitter to report that people really care about therefore Something Must Be Done. And something does actually get done on occasion. Without Twitter, I doubt that the #BlackLivesMatter movement would still be going on with the results it has had. Communication is key in social movements after all and Twitter really helps that.

              Most of the time though it turns into public shaming of someone without any effort to verify the person being shamed deserves it or an easy way to send death threats to women you don’t like.

              • I have certainly seen that, but it never occurred to me how stupid it is. But I suppose it makes their work easier.

    • I wouldn’t doubt it. I’m sure they spent a lot of time and money focus grouping the hell out of that.

  2. In my experience, it’s because we give a tone of voice in our head to whatever we’re writing as we write. Unfortunately this tone of voice doesn’t get magically transferred along with our message, which arrives as a set of silent impersonal characters. The receiver then adds a tone of voice based on his/her state of mind at that moment, which may or may not be the same as the one originally in the writer’s head.
    Think of the many tones of voice with which the word “yes” can be spoken, each communicating something different. How can those nuances be expressed using only the three letters composing the word? Emojis and punctuation symbols are a way of conveying that missing tone of voice.

    • I agree. But people don’t seem to have random responses to electronic communication; they have negative responses. There is a tendency to read in such a way as to create conflict rather than minimize it.

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