Communication Breakdown: The Text Message

If you’ve grown up in the era of cell phones, texting, and emoticons, the following scenario is likely very familiar:

(Set scene) Group of guys/girls hanging out.  One [guy/girl] is romantically interested in person of opposite sex, wants to text said person.  Asks group what to send in text message.  Group discusses word choice, smiley faces, and level of flirtatiousness in message.  After 5 minutes, it is agreed upon to send “Hi :)”   (End scene).

First off, don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dating in the 21st century, I’m way too out of date to do that.  For example, I first learned what emojis were this morning, and I still don’t really grasp the concept.  Rather the above scene will be used to illustrate some important points about how modern methods of communication affect us.  At some point in time, most of us have been a part of such a scene, either on the sending or receiving end.  Texting has become a fairly standard part of the progression of modern relationships.  I don’t find the trivial details of texting and relationships to be too interesting, but we can learn a lot when we dive into why we are so drawn towards texting.

So, why are we so inclined to send text messages?  To list a few of their merits, they are fast, easy, fairly inconspicous, and very convenient.  Specifically though, why do we choose to text in the situation described above, when you are interested in a guy/girl?  It’s certainly not faster or more convenient, as a quick call to say “would you like to go to dinner” would be twenty times faster and require less effort than navigating the intricacies of texting.

The reason we are so drawn to texting is because it eliminates risk.  When we call someone up, a direct connection is made with that person, which puts us at risk.  At risk for rejection, embarrassment, failure, or even success. Texting allows us to hide behind the glass walls of an LCD touch screen, providing a safe barrier between us and the other person.  You don’t have to have that gut-check moment right before asking the girl out and waiting for her to reply yes or no while you hold your breath for what seems like an eternity but is really 2 seconds; instead you just type, tap send, and wait.

I like to use dating as an easy example, but this holds true for any communication.  If you don’t want to talk to your parents about what’s really going on in your life, you can just text them that you’re ok.  If you don’t want to confront a friend about some problem, just hash it out over an hour long texting conversation.   In any relationship we can avoid risk by using indirect methods of communication (texting, email) instead of on the phone or face to face.

Pause here: I’ve probably run into a bit of dissention with you, the reader.  You validly want to point out that the way we communicate has constantly been changing over time.  First we grunted at each other, then we developed words, then wrote those words down on stone and pieces of bark, then talked through a nationwide system of wires.  Now we send signals up to a satellite, back down, and into a little black device.  What difference does it make, you say?  So now we text instead of calling or writing letters, it’s just part of the natural continuous progression.  What we say hasn’t changed, just the means we use to say it.

Which is a good argument. However, the key point here is that how we communicate fundamentally affects the nature of our relationship with that person.  Asking someone out, calling an old relative you haven’t talked to in years, or talking over an important problem with a friend face to face are all hard, and as we saw earlier, involve risk. But this risk, this leap of faith across the boundary between you and the Other that puts your neck on the line, is what creates the foundation of the relationship.  By opening up and exposing yourself and your vulnerabilities to the other, you inherently make the focus of the relationship about that person, not yourself.  And a true relationship is one in which you desire for the good of the other person as much or more as for yourself.

Contrast this with texting. When we text, we avoid risk and don’t truly extend ourselves to the other person. This causes us to focus the relationship inwardly on ourselves: what should I send to make her come to the party with me tonight? what can I say to make her not be mad at me any more? what do I need to say to get my parents off my back? You get the point.  The absence of risk on my part makes me unconsciously focus on what I can get out of the relationship instead of what can I give.

This is not meant to be a full fledged attack on modern communication. In some, if not most cases, texting likely does no harm. But as modern relationships and communication have undoubtedly changed, it’s something may have more impact than it seems. If you think about it a bit and look at how your own experiences have played out, you might find a bit of truth in it.