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The 10 Ways That We Overanalyze Texts

The Stock Exchange or The Text Exchange: ask people which they find more stressful and texting might just give the Stock Exchange a run for its money. According to this article from Forbes, there are eight major sources of stress these days: job stability, intimate relationships, housing costs, health problems, family responsibilities, work, the economy, and money. Maybe Forbes should have counted to fifty instead of eight. They forgot to include a few things, like the threat of terrorism, global warming, nuclear weapons, divorce, death of a loved one, and the fear of ending up old and alone with 35 cats. Oh, and as if there aren’t enough legitimately important things to worry about, there’s always text messaging; after all, crafting a text can often be as confusing as it is convenient.

Technology has undoubtedly made our lives easier in many ways, but I’m not so sure I like the effect it’s had on dating. Where it was once necessary to actually leave your house to meet someone, you can now do so from the comfort of your own couch using sites like OKCupid and Match.com; blind dates are no longer blind, thanks to Google and Facebook; and the art of conversation has been whittled down to the ability to express oneself in approximately 140 characters. We try to protect ourselves from rejection by hiding behind not-so-emotionally-bulletproof plastic screens, but at the end of the day, technology can only shield us from so much.

Inspired by Jeff Wilser’s recent piece from The Cut, “The 10 Ways That Men Text Women”, I got to thinking about texting in general, and, more specifically, the ways in which we tend to overanalyze text messages. Disclaimer regarding the use of the word “we”: my hunch is that over-analysis transcends gender altogether. I by no means want to imply that all women overanalyze, or that all men don’t—in fact, I happen to know few guys who are wayyy more obsessed with texting than all of my female friends combined—but, that said, I can only speak from my experience as a woman. Basically, I’m talking correlation, not causation.

Dr. Ria Van Ryn, an assistant professor of sociology at Yeshiva University, raises a fantastic point regarding over-analysis: You can analyze communication in a completely legitimate way, without it being considered “overanalyzing.” “Who decides what the ‘right’ amount is? There’s a hugely gendered thing going on here where women are expected to craft these perfect, witty messages but then not expected to expend any energy doing so,” Dr. Van Ryn explains.

When it comes to the role digital devices play in dating these days, the movie adaptation of He’s Just Not That Into You sums it up pretty well (albeit in the gendered way Dr. Van Ryn identifies above): “I had this guy leave me a voice mail at work, so I called him at home, and then he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting.” Seriously. And once you add in the complexities of communicating via social media? Forget it.

I often wonder how many minutes (fine, hours) of our lives young- to mid-20-somethings devote to text messaging. I’m sure I’m not alone when I confess to spending an embarrassing amount of time composing and analyzing and discussing and dissecting texts, as if the use of a period instead of a comma might have some sort of subliminal meaning. (Which—according to Wilser’s piece—it could. Ugh.) Can’t we all just level the playing field and come up with a few basic rules of thumb(s) for texting? Or is that too much to ask?

The 10 text message trends I most often end up analyzing and/or overanalyzing:

1. The text itself as a means of communication

The good ol’ texting vs. calling debate. There doesn’t seem to be one right answer, but whatever the means of communication, I’m likely to overanalyze it. I’m not sure when it was exactly that the text message replaced the phone call. As a friend of mine recently said, “What the eff ever happened to the phone call?! I know how to speak. What I don’t know is how to talk in 160 characters or less.” Some people argue that if you’re into someone, you call him or her to ask for a first date. After all, it’s more personal to hear someone’s voice… right? Then again, others—myself included—hate talking on the phone and would do anything in their power to avoid it. So who am I to fault a guy for texting instead of calling if he’s the one putting himself out there and making the first move? Of course, each option comes with its own set of pros and cons:

Texting

  • Pros: Less intrusive; gives you time to think of a clever response; convenient no matter where you are
  • Cons: Less personal; texts may be dissected, overanalyzed, and misinterpreted; have to watch your spelling and punctuation

Calling

  • Pros: More personal to hear someone’s voice; gutsy; no character limit
  • Cons: More intrusive (“What if I’m interrupting?”); talking on the phone is inevitably awkward at first with someone you don’t know; more pressure to think on your feet

2. Who goes first?

For some people, it’s not even a question: if someone has your number, a cell phone, and at least one appendage with which he (or she) can type, the ball is in that person’s court. If that person doesn’t initiate, he or she’s not interested.

But who’s to say a man has to initiate? It’s a two-way street: if you’ve exchanged numbers, why not go for it and text him first? The media constantly bombards women with mixed messages when it comes to making the first move. One day, it’s best to be a confident and empowered woman of the 21st century and do the asking; the next day, it’s best to revert back to the 1950s and wait for men do the pursuing. No wonder there’s so much anxiety surrounding that first text.

“There’s something bigger going on here,” notes Dr. Van Ryn. “It’s not just about initiating a date; it’s about women initiating any kind of power-laden conversation with men. Are these so-called ‘rules’ shifting as more and more of straight people’s peer groups include LGBT people? Or is the ‘lean in’ phenomenon, if problematic, at least on everyone’s minds?”

At the end of the day, I think it’s best to just follow your instincts, trust your gut, and text if you feel like texting.

3. The three-day rule

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a magical thing called the “three-day rule”: if you met someone and exchanged numbers, there was an enchanted 72-hour period during which you were supposed to communicate for the first time, or else the bubble would burst and you had to go back to square one. But just how outdated is that three-day rule? And did anyone really abide by it in the first place?

In a digital age where many people are practically surgically attached to their phones, there’s an underlying pressure to respond to texts, calls, and emails immediately. We’ve grown increasingly dependent on instant gratification, and in its absence, find ourselves searching frantically for an explanation—especially at first. You want to believe that if someone’s interested in you, he or she will reach out within the first 24 hours and then respond to your texts in a timely manner. In theory, why shouldn’t they? Technology makes it so easy. And yet there’s this thing called “life” that sometimes takes priority over digital demands. Despite the flexibility and convenience that technology affords, it can be more of a burden than a luxury if you feel pressure to be available 24/7. I vote we all just cut each other some slack. The whole playing-it-cool thing is exhausting. And now, of course, iMessages mean you can tell when the other person is typing. It’s like knowing what cards are in the other player’s hand. Thanks, technology, for ruining our game.

4. Mirroring text behavior

In person, mirroring another person’s body language indicates connection on a subconscious level, but I’m yet to see how that could possibly translate to a text message. Is it just me, or is there nothing subconscious about texting? You know that scene in Mean Girls when Lindsay Lohan’s character says to her crush, “I pretended to be bad at math so that you’d help me. But the thing is, I’m not really bad at math. I’m actually really good at math. You’re kind of bad at math. Anyways, now I’m failing. Isn’t that funny?”

Obviously pretending to be bad at something you’re good at is a far cry from funny, but I have a confession to make: I’ve totally felt this way before when it comes to texting (and not just with someone I’m potentially interested in). If someone uses emoticons, I’m more likely to use emoticons. He or she uses abbreviations? I’m more likely to use ‘em too, even though I hate ‘em (see #8 below.) You get the gist.

Then there’s the question of response time: before answering, do I have to wait at least as long as the other person waited before texting me? Sometimes I wish that flirtation were a science instead of an art, and that there were a Periodic Table to help us decide when to text back—something numbered and color-coded with a key at the bottom that explained everything.

“Again, what we’re talking about here is power,” says Dr. Van Ryn. “To whom are you giving the power to say there is a right way to communicate with someone you’re interested in?” Good question. I’m not exactly sure, but I’m all for taking said power back.

5. Time of day (or night)

A text that comes in at 2am is very different from one that comes in at 2pm. Just sayin’. Same goes if you’re initiating.

6. What to say/how to say it

In theory, texting should be casual. Brief. Timely. But then there’s pressure—perhaps from the media, perhaps from our peers—to come across a certain way in those precious 160ish characters. You want to be lighthearted and flirtatious, but not flaky or too sexual. You want to show that you’re interested, but not desperate; flexible, but not too available; smart, but not a know-it-all. Exhausting much?

The pressure to strike a careful balance is something that Dr. Van Ryn argues applies to dating-related communication in general: “[Wanting to come across a certain way] speaks to me about gendered presentation of self even beyond texting,” she says. “There are all things I think many single, relatively privileged, straight women feel pressure to do in a bar as much as via text.”

The real question: why do we feel like we have to meet expectations, anyway? What’s wrong with being exactly who we are? (To that point, Dr. Kelly Flanagan recently posted a gorgeous letter to his daughter encouraging her to be just that. I highly recommend it!)

7. Emoticons

As Wilser writes, “there’s a fuzzy line between friendly banter and cutting insult… garnish[ing] a text with an exclamation point or emoticon, this can lighten the tone, sell a joke, and transform caustic to playful.” Well said—but I think everyone, regardless of gender, has the power to distinguish between banter and insult. Use of emoticons isn’t reserved for women. I vote that the occasional smiley face is fine, especially if it helps to clarify tone. But emoticons peppered throughout every single text? Not necessary.

Also—and this is weird to admit—I’m put off by the use of emojis early on. (What age are we living in that I’m actually analyzing the placement of emojis?! I’m pretty sure I should be embarrassed.) Anyway. I tend to save emojis for conversations with my friends and family – people who would surely know what I meant if I sent them a mouse and then a heart and then a martini glass….

8. Abbrevs

Abbrevs. I hate them. Usually. Sure, sometimes I’ll use “tom” or “tmrw” for “tomorrow” or “b/c” for “because”—a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do—but I h8 it when ppl r 2 lazy 2 use full wrds. U c y? (See Wilser’s definition of the “Buy-a-Voweler” for more on this subject.) Autocorrect makes it nearly impossible not to type full words. Use that to your advantage.

And a quick note about the use of LOL: even if you’re actually laughing out loud, “LOL” makes me doubt you. And when I see things like “LOL” and “LMFAO”, I get confused and think maybe I somehow texted a 16-year-old girl by mistake. And that’s a terrifying feeling.

9. Punctuation, capitalization, and spelling

Word nerd that I am, I love proper grammar. Unfortunately, semi-colons aren’t exactly commonplace in text messages, and when you have a limited number of characters, punctuation is one of the first things to go. I try to be as non-judgmental as possible when it comes to punctuation. So what if he used a comma instead of a period? Is that really a deal breaker? That said, something I’ll never get past is the proper use of your/you’re and their/there/they’re. Misspellings make me cringe, even if it is all autocorrect’s fault.

Side note: I’m a huge fan of ellipses (or what Wilser refers to as the “Cliff-hanger.”) They’re just so versatile. Not as terse as a period, but less enthusiastic than an exclamation point. I look at them as the Switzerland of punctuation.

10. The final word

Last but not least: ending a conversation. How are you supposed to decide when it’s appropriate to end the conversation? And how do you go about it? Do you stop asking the other person questions? Let it trail off casually and just hope that it’s not awkward? Leave it open-ended…

Special thanks to Dr. Ria Van Ryn for her help with this article. You can follow her on Twitter @riavanryn.