In a box tucked away behind a bundle of clothes I’ve been meaning to put on Depop for at least two years is a very, very old mobile phone. Stored in its surprisingly robust memory are messages I sent to someone I loved very much when I was 17 years old.
Recently I read them back. I was surprised by how much we managed to say to each other in so little space, using abbreviations and tiny keypads. I rarely see this person in real life now so those messages, along with some handwritten notes, a photograph and some actual physical mix CDs are all I have left of a life-changing, character-defining relationship.
I know nobody makes mix CDs now. Do they still send each other handwritten notes? I’m not sure. But I do know that while the texts we used to send each other felt novel, exciting and rare – meant only to tide us over between seeing each other in person and the hours spent talking on the phone at night – they are now a mainstay of communication. Often without the other stuff.
We are all writers now. How many words do you write a day? In total? What is the cumulative word count of all your WhatsApps, Instagram comments, emails? You cannot get by if you can’t communicate yourself in writing today and yet even I, a professional writer, feel like I am in equal measure constantly being misunderstood and not understanding other people.
Writing anything is a delicate and often fraught journey that deviates from the route you’ve planned out in your head, going off road into thorny scrubland of politics and power. This seems to be as true of writing books, articles and essays as it is of firing off quick messages to friends, family members, lovers and colleagues. That’s why we all care about them so much. It’s why we spend hours poring over messages from people our friends are dating, trying to decipher a hidden code that probably doesn’t exist. It’s why we text the partners we’ve lived with for years during the day even though we woke up next to them that morning and will go to sleep next to them later that night. It’s why we overthink emails from our bosses which, when we read them in retrospect, are painfully straightforward.
This has been compounded by the global coronavirus pandemic that was rolled out across the planet by inchoate forces beyond all of our control and has put even more pressure on our messages to one another. With so many of us unable to see people in the flesh, WhatsApp, Slack, Instagram and email have morphed from being pragmatic facilitators into lifelines.
I spend more time than ever poring over screens containing words sent to me by another person I cannot see and wondering what they mean. Is that full stop a signifier that I’ve done something wrong? Am I not liked by this person? When they said “that’s fine” did they really mean it? Or were they trying to say something else? It’s just an email, why do I feel so weird about it? Did they not understand my message? I asked how they were. Why haven’t they told me?
All of our words are working harder and we’re reading more into them than ever before but this angst is, of course, nothing new. Neuroscience and psychology converge to confirm that pretty much all human behaviour is driven by the need to belong and the desire to connect with other people. It’s one of our most basic, primal instincts. It follows that researchers have found that the need to feel understood is hardwired into every fibre of our being. If eating, drinking water and sleeping are the fuels that keep us technically alive, our connections with others are what keep us living.
That’s why the quality of those connections matters. In a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in 2014, a group of researchers confirmed that feeling understood activates bits of the brain which are associated with reward (the ventral striatum and middle insula) while not feeling understood sets off parts associated with negative affect (the anterior insula).
The problem we currently have is that because we are working remotely, seeing fewer people and communicating more via mediums designed to help us talk to one another more efficiently, not more effectively, there is a huge person-shaped gap between what we say and how it is received. The written word is great but as centuries of literary criticism will tell you, it is entirely subjective.
Via Slack, email, WhatsApp and DM you cannot read the person you’re talking to’s expression or body language. You cannot see how many other things they’re doing at the same time as trying to respond to you. You do not have the context you would normally have if you were, say, sitting opposite them in an office as you sent an email saying: “Do you have five minutes for a chat later?” You don’t know if your joke has been a hit or missed the mark.
As one of my Refinery29 colleagues recently remarked in our group Slack channel: “I miss the laughter rippling across the office in unison when we post funny stuff in here.”
Bernie Hogan is senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Internet Institute. His research focuses on how social networks and social media can be designed to empower people to build stronger relationships and stronger communities.
He says the problem is that “it is hard to know the mood of the other person solely through their text, but it is important to infer it. It’s possible to get it wrong in person, but we are really attuned to doing this. Some of us more than others, but most adults are able to read social cues intuitively and those who have some trouble with this have training or coaching options to help them.”
Online, though, he adds that “everyone is still operating with a great deal of uncertainty. Think about this quote that I’ve sent you via email because I didn’t have time to talk to you on the phone…how long did it take to write? Did I edit it a lot (showing uncertainty) or a little (showing confidence)? Did I type fast (suggesting the ideas come easily) or slowly (suggesting perhaps that I’m deliberating)? These are real features that can be detected in person with ease. But unless we encode for them in media, the person reading a message will never know them.”
Ultimately this means that we’re living in a new kind of hell where we can’t say anything without wondering whether we have actually been understood. Suddenly, more of our focus than ever is on other people’s perceptions.
As you might expect, Bernie is not surprised by any of this. “Some of the misunderstandings we experience have been known about since the very earliest studies on computer chatting in the mid ’80s,” he explains, “and we could have probably predicted this earlier since we know that delivery and context are crucial parts of communication. Sending things over text doesn’t help because we only get a little metadata such as timing (did someone reply quickly or slowly, for example).”
Is there, I ask him, a way to make sure we are better understood when we are communicating via text? “One of the ways we try to put context back in is through paralinguistic cues, like emoji, emoticons and GIFs,” he says. “Unfortunately, these are seen as informal. This means that there are a lot of settings at work where we need to take the temperature of the room when making a decision if we use them or not. They are helpful, though, because formality can be stifling.”
I genuinely think about this a lot. I keep coming back to the fact that we are all writers now as I listen to friends agonising over messages from people they’ve met on dating apps or from other friends that they’re worried are pissed off with them. Or as I watch Twitter storms unfold based on a tweet fired off without context. Does Bernie worry about what it’s doing to our relationships? To our professional networks and our social communities?
“I honestly do not know how worried we should be about texting misunderstandings,” he says. “I used to think we shouldn’t worry much at all, but that’s partially because it was usually misunderstandings with people who I had enough in-person contact that we could check in with each other. Now with social distancing and lockdown, there are less of these sorts of check-in opportunities but there’s still the expectation to be brief and formal.”
If the future is indeed home-working, as 54% of adults hope that it will be after this pandemic finally ends, we need to think more about how we communicate in writing. And not just at work.
“I suspect that the workplace cultures and personal relations that will succeed with these newfound demands for extra texting will be the ones that accept that language evolves,” Bernie says when I put this to him. “It needs to adapt to the medium and that will involve new features, cute forms of expression like GIFs, and a little conscious effort to spell out some context. Those cultures and relations that expect terse, formal and stifled text might strain under the uncertainty that comes with sustained contact in this way.”
There may also be merit in stopping yourself from responding emotionally to a message that you have perceived one way and asking the sender a simple question: “What do you mean by that?” I have started doing this, not so much at work but in my personal life and, let me tell you, it’s life-changing. It has never yet been anything other than positive and opened up a conversation which has ended: “Shall we just talk on the phone?” I am now convinced that there is nothing that a phone call cannot fix.
At a time when face-to-face interactions feel as fragile as our nerves after the personal and political rollercoaster that is 2020 so far, have we fallen back on text because we are under the illusion that we have control over what we say and how it is received because we can edit ourselves? The truth is that this text – whether on WhatsApp, Twitter or Slack – is permanent. You can’t unsend these messages and they’re always open to interpretation once they are out there. On the phone, at least, there is nuance, tone of voice, pause for thought. And in a world where so much seems uncertain, who among us doesn’t just want to feel understood?
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