Textiquette: An Illustrated Guide
It feels so natural, so right—it’s like we’ve always done it. But text-messaging remains relatively new in the broader history of written language. Texting is social shorthand: personal when we want it to be, impersonal when we need it to be, sarcastic and noncommittal on our bad days, and influential and effective on our best days.
We still talk in real life; we meet for coffee, playdates, and business lunches. Yet in these scenarios, we can rely on the give-and-take of eye contact, body posture, and tone of voice to send and receive nonverbal messages.
Face-to-face communication relies heavily on form, or the nonverbal cues that support and enhance meaning. (Ever go on a date, jump back into the car after a bucket of oysters and rapid-fire conversation, and whip out your pocket dictionaries to read to each other? Me neither, but when you're with someone you like, nonverbal communication would more than supplement the lackluster reading material.) When we are texting, there's a tendency to lose each other in the content of our messages.
Without visual cues to augment our efforts to connect and clarify intention, we must approach shorthand as students, not masters, and be careful not to overvalue efficiency at the cost of connection. Scroll through the tips below to regain some impact in shorthand land.
Note: The following paragraphs use the acronym “TP” to refer to your texting partner. You and TP have beautiful potential. Sometimes you’ll fail TP, or TP will fail you. Sometimes it’s just a mess. Better put the work in to ensure a streak-free connection.
Start with a bang (!!!)...or subtle sidle.
If it’s been a hot minute since your last conversation with TP, begin how would you would in person, whether unexpectedly or with a casual ease-in. Anything but the vaguely impersonal “how are you?” will do. “How are you?” with no follow-up looks like you’re temp-checking or fishing for a big one, and a worthwhile TP may not fall for it. Worse --- TP will "how are you?" right back, and it may not end pretty.
Did you see something funny you want to share? Use that as your lead-in. Need advice or for TP to cheer you on? Ask for it. Do you simply miss TP? Say it.
Mind your Os and Ks.
Acquiescence is a long and pretentious word, but more importantly, acquiescence-gone-wrong is an instant convo-killer. Here’s your acquiescence primer, ordered from socially acceptable to “the worst.”
- K: Especially if paired with an exclamation point or emoji, there’s nothing wrong with short and sweet.
- OK: A bit better. Takes double the time to type, and double prizes for all caps.
- Okay (with no punctuation): If you’re on the receiving end of this version, you might want to have a look-see at the preceding comments. This is usually when you’ve dashed expectations or failed to acknowledge the point of a previous message (see: “leading the witness”).
- Ok: Don’t. Please don’t. A non-reply is just fine. Ok starts fights. Ok is worse than a non-reply; it’s a negative reply. If you’re in the middle of something or don’t have the energy, return to the text later.
- Thumbs-up emoji: WERE YOU RAISED BY WOLVES? The thumbs-up is the snarky side-hug of emojis, hardly preferable to no hug at all.
Use emojis to modify.
Emoji-modifiers function as stand-in nonverbals, lending weight back to words. When misplaced or overused, they become the useless dingleberries of conversation. But well-placed emojis clarify and temper our messages, leaving less to TP’s imagination and avoiding miscommunication. They turn the most haphazard among us into clearer communicators; they even turn the worst “ok” offender into someone with real potential.
Avoid nonsense/meaningless modifiers.
Return to “LOL” the meaning it deserves. ONLY USE IT WHEN YOU’RE ACTUALLY LAUGHING.
Don’t “lead the witness.”
Fishing or “leading the witness” is when TP asks a question and secretly hopes for one specific answer. When you fail to respond “correctly”, TP responds with a curt, sarcastic, and/or know-it-all answer, incongruent with the prior conversation. Chances are you didn’t mean harm. Unless you did, in which case a real conversation is in order.
Perfect the emoji-close.
Ending a conversation is art. If you need to go make some lunch, or you’ve taken several turns giving affirmative statements with no exchange of new information, it’s time to close the deal. Like the fancy swirl on a soft-serve ice cream cone, it’s not necessary—but, it’s aesthetic finesse and your definitive exit from the “convo”.
Years ago, the phone version went something like this:
“Okay, well, I’m off to make myself some lunch.”
“Sounds great; what’re you having?”
“I dunno. Maybe egg salad.”
“My aunt has the greatest recipe.”
“Yeah, you know, it’s the damndest thi—“
Here’s the present-day text version:
Of course, the classic rosy-cheek smile or happy tears would also do, but even better to use a too-friendly-to-be-patronizing cowboy hat.
The emoji close is a polite exit while leaving the conversation’s door ajar.
(A word of caution: If you’re selecting from among your frequently-used emojis, proofreading is your friend. Fat thumbs are no excuse for heart-eyes to your frenemy.)
Express your afterthoughts.
Real life requires revisions. In letter writing, the P.S. comes in handy when you’d like to add or edit information. While texting, you may approach an impasse and need to explain, expand, or soften an edge on an earlier message. Here’s where the conversational footnote especially shines: it reminds TP you’re human and mimics the errors of face-to-face conversation. We rarely just mic-drop our words in person; we add or edit when needed and then lean in for the answer.
We’ve all been there. It’s been over 24 hours since you sent a weighty text to TP. TP has gone quiet, and you’re fixing to pull a Lloyd Dobler.
No need to assume the non-reply is a reply in and of itself. The trouble with texting: with increased time between responses, a disproportionate amount of anxiety builds, influencing the rest of the conversation. Re-read your last text, determine whether it is easily misunderstood. If yes, send a follow-up for clarity. If not, a simple “everything okay?” will do.
Engage in meme-tenance (acquaintance maintenance through memes).
We all have the fizzled-out friends we see on the reg but never have an actual conversation with—the familiar face who repeatedly pops up at gatherings of mutual friends, the co-worker we pass again and again throughout the day, etc.. We give the pursed smile or shoot up our eyebrows in friendly acknowledgement as if to say, “I care, moderately.”
Enter meme-tenance, the 21st century way to maintain your half-azz friendships over text. Nothing says “I care, moderately” like the occasional share of a cat video or poop joke. The best and worst part: meme-tenance works. If done well, it keeps TP coming back for more, or at least prevents TP from blocking you, because you’re too loveable to quit.
Just sayin’? Just don’t.
Like spraying air freshener on poop, adding “just sayin’” to an unsavory remark makes it neither prettier nor more palatable to TP.
Exhibit A: https://youtu.be/5kmgUtppQP0?t=1m32s
Tipsy-text with caution
If you’re drinking anything with alcohol, NyQuil or otherwise, now might not be the time to scroll through texts, throw a grenade to reopen a closed conversation or probe TP on that triggering topic.
DO NOT SEND AN AUDIO RECORDING while jingled. It feels like a good idea, it really does. TP gets it; you feel good. TP is embarrassingly honored he/she occupied your mind in your looser state, but he/she is also mostly upset he/she wasn’t invited to this party. If there was ever a time to withdraw, withhold, talk to your dog, this is it. Or go out with TP for real and have a cry into your beer together.
The phone feature still works.
If you’ve been mulling for days, binging on chocolate chip cookies and Kings of Leon, don’t text. Just call.
Though text-messaging leaves behind visual cues in favor of the quick-and-dirty, shorthand conversation retain opportunities for honesty and intention, no overthinking necessary. With minimal effort, we can communicate beyond the faceless, rote exchange of information—and with less chance for misreading each other. Written language, even the short and sweet variety, bends beautifully to accommodate and impart meaning; so, let’s use it with purpose, keeping our words dutiful to our desire to see and be seen, humor and awkwardness and poop emojis included.