Sanglin Lee - Study

Sanglin Lee

Texting: Liberation or a Cop-Out?

I have no doubt that I have devoted countless hours to texting since I got my cellphone in high school. I remember I could not detach from it for extended periods of time without suffering from anxiety and boredom. This attachment seems to be common among teens and young adults. In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle interviewed many teens and concluded that, “these young people live in a state of waiting for connection.” (171) Being constantly connected with others without having to be physically present has allowed us to communicate and form relationships that are different from what has been orthodox before these technologies became common.
Personally, communicating via text, whether it is instant messaging or text messaging, has been an outlet for me to converse with my friends and voice my opinions without having to fear interruptions or losing the courage to say what was on my mind. I have been quiet and shy a majority of my earlier years, so having modes of communication that allowed me to initiate conversation and respond on my own terms was liberating for me. I could craft perfect messages that expressed exactly what I wanted to say or how I felt without getting tongue tied or forgetting what I wanted to say. No one would cut me off or change the subject, forcing me to lose my train of thought.

I’m not Alone: Anecdotes from Kindred Spirits

It may be common for other shy people to find comfort in having alternatives to communicating with others face-to-face. According to Turkle, “The notion that hiding makes it easier to open up is not new… Classical analysis shielded the patients from the analyst’s gaze in order to facilitate free association, the golden rule of saying what comes to mind. Likewise, at a screen, you feel protected and less burdened by expectations.” (188) The feeling of being alone while being a button away from connecting to others gives me a sense of security that protects me from suffering the consequences of saying the wrong things and having to deal with potentially uncomfortable outcomes. In Hey, You’re Breaking Up on Me! an article in the Washington Post by January Payne, Jason Sherman, 25, admits that he sometimes finds it hard to say what he means. “I’m one of those people that it’s hard to speak [my] mind in person. It’s a lot easier to say how I feel [electronically]. You can get more out, and you don’t have to worry about somebody yelling in your face.” I empathize with Sherman and share his sentiments on his reasons for avoiding delivering bad news in person.
Audrey, a sixteen-year-old at Roosevelt Junior, also tells Turkle why she chooses texting over other methods of communication. “I can answer on my own time. I can respond. I can ignore it, so it really works with my mood. I’m not bound to anything, no commitment… I have control over the conversation and almost more control over what I say.” (190) The option to ignore and postpone answering a text is another appealing feature for some. There are people ranging in age who favor texting over any other mode of communication for similar reasons. This suggests that people who struggle with talking to others about negative things are not uncommon.
In Alone Together, Turkle also interviews Elaine, Audrey’s friend, who shares a similar outlook as my own regarding why shy people are more willing to open up while using technology as a mediator. According to Turkle:

Elaine has strong ideas about how electronic media “levels the playing field” between those like her¬— outgoing…— and the shy. “It’s only on the screen that shy people open up.” Elaine gets specific about the technical designs that help shy people express themselves in electronic messaging. The person to whom you are writing shouldn’t be able to see your process of revision or how long you have been working on a message…. The advantage of screen communication is that it is a place to reflect, retype and edit.

In the world of communication mediated by technology, everyone has the potential of being effective communicators. It is okay for people to take a moment to come up with a joke, an argument, or some kind of other witty response that they may not be able to come up with on the spot. If more people were as understanding, as Elaine, of shy people, there may be fewer miscommunications and hurt feelings caused by text messages.

Voices of Dissent

This concept, that some people prefer text-based communication to face-to-face communication, can be difficult to understand for talented orators who speak well under pressure. For example my boyfriend, Eddie, enjoys debates, flourishes while demanding better customer service from companies who don’t meet his standards, and successfully negates almost anything I say that he disagrees with. He admits to getting great pleasure from arguing with people and says that if he goes for an extended period of time without this type of confrontation, he “feels antsy and seek[s] them out.” It is difficult for me to keep up with someone like Eddie; someone who can think and talk so fast that by the time I come up with something to say, he has already moved on to the next topic. There are many occasions where I would think of something clever or a cogent argument hours or even days after our conversation, and then I would wonder why I couldn’t think of this response on the spot, earlier. Being able to indulge in unlimited time to respond really levels out the playing field and gives people like me a more equal opportunity to speak their minds.
On the other hand, Eddie hates that the only way I will speak my mind about anything he does that upsets me is through text message. He says that he “feels annoyed, confused, and even mad when I do this because he hates not being able to have direct feedback. By the time there is a response, it may not be the true [initial] reaction [of the person who texted first] so there is a discontinuity between when the initial text that is sent and when the same person response because they can angrier which can make it a completely different situation.” He went on to explain how miscommunication is inevitable since there is no body language or opportunities for one to explain their side of the story. He finished by saying that “ It [text messaging] is a cop out thing to do and you’re hiding behind the text message.” Ironically, some of the reasons he listed for why he doesn’t approve of my preferred method of communication are exactly the same reasons why I chose to utilize them in the first place.

The Incident

While I am still an introvert, I have grown out of my shy stage and don’t have a problem talking to people. The only difficulty that remains is confronting people. In this aspect, technology, such as texting, has given me a voice I was afraid to use before and has provided me with opportunities to tell others how I feel without suffering mental and emotional anguish during the process. Although consistently having access to my phone provides me with incessant opportunities for me to convey any negative feelings as they happen, I try to avoid doing it as much as I can.
Reading about texting and confrontations in Sherry Turkle’s book after a recent incident I had with my roommate that resulted in a confrontation via text message made me wonder how many more people feel empowered and liberated, like I do, by the opportunity to face others via text. I also couldn’t help but to wonder how many other people, such as my roommate, misinterpret these sensitive messages and get their feelings hurt.
This particular incident with my roommate, of two and a half years, started when she took out a full bag of garbage out of the trashcan, proceeded to tie it up, and then left the bag next to trashcan. She was thoughtful enough to place a new bag into the trashcan but the full trash bag sat in our kitchen for almost a week. I was already upset that she had not taken out the kitchen trash once this during the semester, this happened at the end of September, and that she cleaned the kitchen once during the time we have been living together, so this situation was not good for how I felt about her at the time. As a result, I was resolute on not taking out the trash for her this time.
My fear of confronting other people compelled me to take out the trash without complaining for the first couple of months. Although it was irritating that my roommate started leaving me with more and more cleaning duties the longer we lived together, I didn’t have the guts to tell her how I felt; I thought that being the maid was better than saying the negative things I was feeling about her to her face. It wasn’t until this trash incident that I had the courage or the desire to do the thing I dreaded the most, putting my self in a situation that could result in conflict.
My roommate had a friend visiting the day she pulled out the trash without taking it out. This made me hopeful that she didn’t take out the trash because she didn’t want to interrupt her time with her friend, which is understandable. I didn’t want to embarrass her in front of her friend so I left her a note, in Korean, on our dry-erase board on our refrigerator so that her friend didn’t read my comment about taking out the trash. I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she would take out the trash the next day. After seeing her frequent the kitchen a few times during a span of three days, I wasn’t sure if her absentmindedness was the reason why the trash was still sitting in our kitchen. I was incredulous that she ignored the note and refused to take out the trash. I was determined not to be a pushover and take the easy way out of the situation so I left the trash there, even though our apartment was starting to smell like a dumpster. My anger and disappointment manifested through my passive-aggressive actions, such as taking an extra long time to shower, even though I knew that she was waiting.
She finally realized that something was wrong and texted me asking if we could talk. I initially wanted to ignore her, hoping that the situation would go away. After three hours of stressing out over ignoring the text, I finally responded. Despite my instincts that made me want to solve this situation via text, I texted her back, “Sounds good. Over dinner?” She said, “That’s fine. What time?” I responded “is 7-7:30 okay?” The thought of talking to her in person about what she had done and how I felt was nerve racking and I couldn’t focus during my class. Instead of paying attention to the professor, I made a mental list of things I wanted to cover when I saw her that night. I also thought of different ways to start off the conversation, praying that I didn’t forget to mention anything that was on my mind during our talk.
Around 6:30, I was waiting in my room rehearsing what I wanted to say when I received a text from my roommate, “Sorry can’t make it. I have a meeting and it won’t end until late.” I partially felt relived upon reading this text but I couldn’t help but to feel aggravated that she would flake on me at the last minute. I texted her back asking “how late?” because I thought I should wait for her to get back. She responded “9:30 or 10:00.” At this point, I felt angry.
This reminded me of another incident from the same weekend. She had invited a guy to visit her from DC knowing that she wouldn’t have time to see him because of her other friend. Her friend from DC showed up at our house while my boyfriend and I were eating dinner, asking if my roommate was home. She had told me the week before that she invited this guy to come visit, even though she knew that she was going to be busy with her other friend. I felt really sad that he actually followed through with the plans of visiting her. The guy said that she talked to him right when he left work in DC to confirm that she knew he was coming. He had called my roommate multiple when he was about an hour away to make sure she was still available, but she had ignored all of his calls. I tried calling her a few times but she still did not pick up. After awkwardly sitting in our living room for about half an hour, he left after apologizing profusely for intruding. He said that he didn’t know why he had expected anything to be different since she never followed through on their plans to hang out back at home too. That made me wonder whether she would have pulled a stunt like this if she had talked to this guy in person.
Remembering this incident was the breaking point and I decided to confront her through text and get it over with instead of agonizing over the situation for another few hours until she got home. After contemplating on what I wanted to say for about an hour, I carefully composed a text message that started off with “That’s fine, since I don’t have much to say about this situation anyways.” This turned out to be a false proclamation because once I started typing, more and more of my feelings and frustrations began to emerge.
I sat on my bed, typing, deleting and retyping parts of my message, and then copying and pasting in into the Notes app so that I could use the most accurate and potent words to articulate my feelings. In Turkle’s book Alone Together, she states that, “Whenever one has time to write, edit, and delete, there is room for performance.” (180) She also quotes eighteen year old Brad, a senior at Hadley High, who said that the ability to compose his thoughts online can be reassuring because there is a chance to think through, calculate, edit and make sure you’re as clear and concise as possible. (183) I agree with both statements since having the luxury of time allowed me to maintain a composed demeanor even though I was furious. I was able to describe, in detail, multiple incidents when she did or failed to do something that upset me and even predicted how she might react to each one of my statements. I have no doubt that she also reflected, revised and edited the messages she sent me since it took her about an hour to respond to my message.

Misunderstandings and Hurt Feelings

From this perspective, text messaging can be beneficial since it allows us to polish everything we want to say to each other. The one complication is the numerous opportunities for misunderstandings and misinterpretations while reading these messages. This assertion is supported by the article Texting not Talking on the blog Hacking Christianity by reverend Jeremy Smith, a self-proclaimed technology nerd, who has been highlighted on NPR (National Public Radio), UMC.org (the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church) and UM Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper for United Methodists. In this article, reverend Smith says that he “ran an online religion forum for years and the conversation was more hostile, most likely, because it was asynchronous. We could just write and leave and not see the effect on others until we wanted to… We could fire off an angry email and leave. But rarely will we go to the person and tell them our problems. We prefer asynchronous conflict management.” I concur with revered Smith’s statement on the unwillingness to confront our problems. It is easier for some of us to release our angry text messages or emails and then block them from our memories, not thinking about the outcomes or how they made the recipients feel upon reading the message.
Not having to deal with the person’s reaction in real-time also allows us to be more blunt and even cruel, since we don’t need to face the consequences until later. Just as conversations happening in intervals can cause problems, such as allowing the person sending the message to disregard the immediate consequences of hurting the person they are messaging, having breaks between conversations also permits the responder to ignore the message for as long as they want. Both of these behaviors can cause tension and hostility. Reverend Smith believes that “the reliance of texting to solve conflicts or avoid conversation is, in my view, a harmful development… The problem isn’t texting, it is the context of the texts or the motivations behind texting rather than talking.” While this is true, is it really wrong for people to articulate their feelings via text when their only other option is to suppress these feelings and hold grudges for a long time? I can see why confrontations through texts can be detrimental to relationships and friendships but can’t they also be a liberating means of communication for others? In the long run, hurt feelings may have a greater chance of abating than proliferating grudges and resentment. This makes it okay for desperate people to turn to texting as a solution to their problem.
Many teenagers and young adults, who have cellphones, seem to rely heavily on them for communication, entertainment, and feeling connected with the rest of the world. In Payne’s article Hey, You’re Breaking Up on Me! she asserts that “it is no longer unusual to deliver uncomfortable news by text message, instant message or e-mail and, increasingly, through social networking sites. An October survey commissioned by Samsung Telecommunications America reported that about 11 percent of Americans say breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend via text message is okay.” This may be an indication that cultural norms are changing due to technology. While it was unacceptable for people to deliver bad news or be confrontational via text messages before, it can be increasingly accepted as a norm in the near future.
While breaking up via text, whether it be by text message or post-it note, has been frowned upon for a long time, it may soon become conventional. Payne’s article highlights technologies that contribute to and promote utilizing technology to avoid uncomfortable situations. The current technologies mentioned in the article include: the rejection hotline, a prerecorded voice-mail line created in 2001 that bluntly tells the person that they have been rejected; the Breakup Butler, “another option for breaking up with significant others, who delivers a ‘kinder, gentler, proper breakup;” STD E-Cards that notifies past sex partners that they may have contracted a STD; and the Screen Numbers and Rescue Calls which allow people to have secondary numbers that route calls to their regular phone number so that they can disconnect the secondary number when convenient. While some of these options are extreme and may require a personal conversation, having more and more options to turn to for avoiding in-person confrontation encourages people to avoid them. If people were asked to choose whether they would rather receive one of these notices or nothing at all, many may choose the former option.

Changes in Society

New norms lead to new rules and words, like the word “textiquette” which according to Urban Dictionary, means the proper behavior one should use when texting.” Recently developed words, like this, indicate change in society because they normalize this behavior by setting rules to follow when texting. An article published on usetoday.com provides a compiled list of rules, by various people, of “safe texting” which includes: “Keep it short: any message longer than 160 characters is considered an e-mail” by Doug Busk, associate director of messaging at Verizon Wireless, and “Use discretion: some sentiments should never be expressed through text. The most powerful and considerate way to declare your feelings is face-to-face” according to Ceri Marsh, a fashion news director at Fashion magazine and co-writer of a weekly etiquette column, “Urban Decorum,” for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. While I understand Busk’s distinction between an appropriate length for text messages and emails, I believe that his notion will soon be obsolete, due to the rise in popularity of smartphones. Smartphones make it more difficult to distinguish the difference between the two because the same device delivers both types of messages. In this sense, longer text messages may eventually be deemed as appropriate textiquette. As for Marsh, I agree with the latter part of her statement but am still convinced that there are always exceptions to expressing sentiments that people believe should never be done through text. While many people may still reject the idea of using text messages as a bearer of bad news, the fabrication of the word textiquette denotes that enough people are breaking the current rules for there to be a need to indicate that there are rules that need to be followed.
Different people have different reasons for being proponents or opponents of confrontation through text. Some may say that it is bad textiquette, while others may say that it’s the only outlet for them to vent about their feelings. While I understand and even agree with some of the reasons people, like Eddie and textiquette enforcers, demand that addressing problems over text is inappropriate, there are others, like myself, Jason Sherman, and Audrey who find comfort in being able to speak their minds without having to worry about immediate consequences following the text.
It would only be fair for society to also take people like us into consideration before condemning our preferred way of communication. Instead of rejecting something we feel uncomfortable with, we should all do our best to be considerate and accepting of people who are different from ourselves. Those of us who do not feel comfortable talking about our feelings to others in person should make more of an effort to use text messages as a conversation starter so that the other person can bring up the topic. Others who dislike loaded text messages should try to be more understanding of how the other person feels about face-to-face interactions. A willingness to understand and receive people who are different from us will be a good way for all of us to be more empathetic and accommodating for others.

Works Cited

"Confrontation via Text Messaging." Personal interview. 1 Oct. 2011.
Payne, January W. "Hey, You're Breaking Up on Me!" The Washington Post.
The Washington Post, 13 Feb. 2007. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/ content/article/2007/02/12/AR2007021201139.html>.
Smith, Jeremy. "Texting Not Talking." Hacking Christianity. 26 Oct. 2010.
Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
<http://hackingchristianity.net/2010/10/texting-not-talking.html>.
"Text Etiquette: How to Avoid Pushing the Wrong Buttons." USA TODAY.com.
USA Today, 29 Jan. 2006. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
<http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techinnovations/2006-01-29safe-texting-sidebar_x.htm>.
"Textiquette." Def. 2. Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 13 Feb. 2009. Web.
17 Oct. 2011.
<http://www.urbandictionary.comdefine.php?term=Textiquette>.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and
Less from Each Other
. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.