A Bunch Of Social Issues Related To Texting

In this article I'll bring up some assorted social issues that arise from text messaging. In some cases I'll give advice, but in others I'll more just talk about the issue for its own sake. Since it's still a relatively new way to communicate, I think a big theme is how the social rules of texting are still a work in progress.

Is it rude to text with other people around?

Of course, it depends on the context somewhat, but I overall I don't think there's a solid answer anyone can give for this common concern. This question is one where different individuals and groups of friends have developed their own standards about what's acceptable. Bad feelings can arise when people who follow different unwritten texting etiquette meet.

Some people believe it's always rude, inconsiderate, and distracted to be texting when someone else is right in front of you. Even worse, they point out how sometimes people can be passive-aggressive or egotistical when they text in front of someone, to send a "You're not important enough to me" vibe. They think someone should give all their attention to whoever they're physically with, and that most texts can wait.

On the other side are people who don't really care if someone is texting around them. They think sending text messages is just part of life these days, and don't take it personally if a friend stops talking to them for twenty seconds to fire off a quick reply to someone. They expect to be able do the same in return. They might have the attitude that if everyone is connected so easily these days, why can't they be chatting to a buddy in another town at the same time they're hanging out with some friends?

The stereotype is that younger people are more text happy, but I really don't think these differences are purely generational. There are 50-year-olds who are glued to their phones and 18-year-olds who hate it when they're out with a bunch of buddies and everyone is face down typing away instead of talking to each other.

I don't think for a second that I'm some Miss Manners-style authority on etiquette, but considering how up in the air this question is, here are the general guidelines I follow regarding texting around other people:

People often play with their phones to avoid looking awkward

Related to the section above, this point may change your perspective the next time you see someone standing around engrossed in their iPhone. Many people will start texting their friends, or pick up their phone to at least give the impression they're texting someone, in order to avoid looking awkward. They'll often do it if they're standing around a public place or social gathering with nothing to do. They figure it's better to appear socially engaged and busy than look like a lost wallflower. In a group conversation someone may feel nervous and like they don't know what to say, and retreat behind their phone as a crutch. Even in certain high-pressure-yet-casual one-on-one conversations they may resort to this behavior.

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When text conversations end suddenly

One thing people will complain about is that they'll be texting someone, and then the other person will stop responding out of nowhere. It may in the middle of a longish exchange, or only after a few messages. It can be confusing to be on the receiving end of this, and feel it's a tiny bit rude and rejecting.

It's another set of rules that's in development. At the moment the guideline most people seem to go by is that when you're done talking to someone it's usually okay to just stop responding to them. Nothing personal, just that having to formally end every exchange would feel like overkill. Also, when you text another person you may catch them in any number of circumstances and they may only be able to send a couple of messages or two before they have to get back to whatever they were doing. Plus it's not realistic to expect that every time you send someone a message they have to get into a lengthy conversation with you. Also, sometimes when one person doesn't reply to your text, it's not that they were ending the conversation abruptly, but that they received the message, told themselves they were going to think of what to write in reply, and then got occupied by something else. People sometimes don't reply to emails for the same reason.

In general I think it's good to be laid back and not expect people to properly wrap up every exchange. If someone stops texting you, don't read too much into it. Most people would consider it pretty needy and clingy if you were to send them a ton of follow-up messages asking where they went, or if they got your last text. Just contact them again a bit later on if you need to.

The question of how long to wait before you respond to someone's text

This is one of the quirky little scenarios that texting has created. Some people wonder how fast they should reply when they've texted someone and the other person took a while to get back to them. Even though they've received the message they feel they'd look too eager and desperate if they responded instantly. They'll often wait at least a few minutes before replying, but feel like the whole exercise is pointless game playing. This kind of analysis can really come into play if you're texting someone you're interested in think you have to play it cool.

I'm not sure if there's a standard solution that you can apply for this one. Personally, I just follow the lead of the other person. If they get back to me really quickly, and I'm not doing anything else, I'll respond in kind. If they're taking a while, I'll assume they're busy with something else, and will take my own time getting back to them. I also think it's good not to overthink things, or assume that everyone is playing games with you to increase their sense of status at your expense.

Texting to avoid phone conversations

Texting has replaced a ton of conversations that people used to have over the phone. We're probably not going back to the old ways anytime soon. As a form of communication texting has a mix of pros and cons compared to speaking on the telephone, and I don't place any value judgment on it either way. For people who are scared of talking on the phone though, this is a blessing and curse. They get to avoid a lot of nerve-racking conversations by conducting them through text instead, but when they do have to use the phone it makes it that much more daunting.

People's writing skills going down the toilet when they text

Among people who consider proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar important, texting some of their friends can really make them lose faith in humanity. My thoughts on this are that all things being equal, you usually come across better if your writing is well put together. However, in non-professional situations fussing over every last comma and capitalized letter will strike many people as anal-retentive and unnecessary. As long as the other person can grasp your meaning, it doesn't matter that you wrote something like "u" instead of "you". It's also just easier to make typos on a little touch screen.

If a friend's messages truly are childishly written and incomprehensible, then maybe you can gently tease them about it and let them know they may want to make their writing at least somewhat more coherent. Overall though, it's best not to get too wound up about text speak, as it's often more a reflection of someone's communication style than their intelligence. They just think it's more important to fire off a message quickly, and that composing perfectly formed sentences isn't essential.

When people expect those they text to get back to them right away

I think the social guidelines around this issue have pretty much been established. Some people get irritated when they text a friend or acquaintance and they don't get back to them instantly, even though they technically could because they always carry their phone with them. Not counting the times when someone is genuinely occupied and unable to get to their phone, or their battery died, or the text didn't go through right away, or the new text alert didn't go off, most people agree it's not realistic to expect others to respond to all of their run-of-the-mill messages as soon as they send them.

Since texting allows people to be reached throughout the whole day, they need to have the right to choose when they'll get back to you. It's more like you're sending them an email than anything. Maybe they'll want to reply quickly, or they may decide to get to it later. The alternative is that we'd be forced to get into a conversation with someone every time they texted us, regardless of what we were in the middle of. Getting dejected or annoyed at someone for not responding to you at the drop of a hat also seems a bit insecure, at best. At worst, some people come across as downright possessive and controlling, when they do things like send seven increasingly angry follow-up messages because their partner didn't respond to them soon enough.

When you send a text that's ignored

It stings when you text someone and they never end up getting back to you. It's always possible they were busy or forgot to reply, but another part of your mind may be quick to go to, "Do they just not like me?" You can never know for sure. Here are some more innocuous explanations, based on the type of text you sent:

I'm not trying to make excuses for any of this. It is more considerate to fire off at least a quick reply. However, some people have a mindset where they think it's justifiable to ignore some messages, so I wanted to explain that. If you really need to hear back from them you can always send a follow-up text.