Consider the above exchange between Brandon and Ann. What’s going on there? Why no “hey” in response? Why the ice-cold full stop?...
Issue #4
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Consider the above exchange between Brandon and Ann. What’s going on there? Why no “hey” in response? Why the ice-cold full stop?

Unlike the author of this sentence, Brandon won't worry if Ann is mad at him because after working with her for over a year, he knows her texting personality rather well. She doesn't mean to be rude. She’s just completely unconscious that her habit of adding full stops after single-word sentences might confuse or perplex other people who don't know her.

Why am I reading about two fictional characters, you might be wondering? Well, the point I'm trying to make is that texting is hard — and the madness of a completely silent open-space office, with two people sitting right next to each other and exchanging texts on Slack is worthy of a Kafka novel or a Beckett play.

🔮 Back to the future

There was no LOL until the '80s

Internet writing is relatively new: It quietly started in the 1970s (FidoNet, BBS, modem sound intensifies) and massively exploded with the rise of big social networks from 2004 onwards.

Up until then, there was very little informal writing going on. Yes, kids exchanged notes in classes, and people posted letters and cards throughout the 20th century, but, first, that writing followed the same principles of “proper”, formal writing we’re taught in school; second, it happened on rare occasions rather than every day.

Mobile phones and 160-characters made the first push, introducing C U L8R and other linguistic wonders, but the true outbreak happened when everyone got a phone and was suddenly texting all the time with everybody. Equip a solid portion of the world’s populations with pocket-sized typewriters and suddenly you’re running the biggest global linguistic experiment in history.

None of us have ever been explicitly taught internet writing — we learned it through experimentation. (How else?) And so, over time, everyone developed their own texting personality, a previously non-existent concept, which is now a subject of rigorous academic research.

🤐 Speak Emoji to me

No two people text exactly the same

A visualisation of a peach emoji

Your texting personality is defined by all the tiny choices contained in each message: Do you type in CAPS LOCK to convey raising your voice or to express irony? do you use emojis or not? 🙂tbh, do you lol or just hahahahahahaha? How about capitalizing the first letter of each line? Do you end your messages with full stops? Do you duplicate vowels to express how you feeeeeeeeel? any unusual punctuation?!?!?!.............

do you write
your thoughts
as complete sentences
or split one sentence
over five lines
like this?

As Dr. Lauren Collister, a linguist and librarian at the University of Pittsburgh, puts it: "People can express themselves in a certain style in using different means of language that can show that they’re a little bit different than everybody else. They have their own way of writing, just as we have our own way of speaking to each other."

💭 Unpopular opinion

Ah, yes, language is hard

We barely manage to make sense of each other’s words in person, with all the intonation and facial expressions and gestures and so on — and even with all that in place it's impossible to avoid misunderstandings. Texting makes everything even more difficult.

Even the most tiny, seemingly simple things like smileys can be interpreted differently. Gretchen McCulloch, an internet linguist and the author of “Because Internet,” made a poll asking “What does :P mean to you?” Of the more than 1,100 people who responded, 66% said the tongue-out emoticon was flirtatious or cutesy, 8% said it conveyed exasperation, and 20% said it checks both boxes.

Texting at work is a weird setting where we run into a conflict between formal and informal writing. On top of style clashes, there's another problem: misunderstandings, which are much more likely to happen in text. What we want to say, what we end up saying, what the other person ends up reading, and what they will make of it are all very different things. There's always missing/confusing context (Do you mean this week's report or that of last week?), lack of intonation (Yes.), knowledge gaps (Sorry what's 2FA?), vocabulary mismatch (Full stops? Do you mean periods?), and so on.

And on top of clash of styles, you've got culture clashes. The more we work with people from other cultures in far-flung locations, the less we pick up on subtle meaning and the more we fall victim to misunderstanding and inefficiency. Much of the world's communication happens in English, which means many people are communicating in their non-native language. The newly evolved internet language is a (more) common tongue, but there are still tonality and formalities that create conflict across cultures.

How can you read a person’s meaning when it’s sent over email or via Slack? Online, not only do we lack access to implicit cues like body language, but recent research even emojis can get lost in translation.

So, what can we do about it? How can we get better at texting?

The unavoidable conclusion is that in work context, texting is a skill, much like any other soft skill. A wild idea: It needs to be developed by anyone who wants to work remotely, and it needs to be considered by companies during the interview process.

Ten years ago that would sound baffling to say the least. M.S. in Texting?! But today… Welcome to the new normal.

☝️Did you know

Funny ending

The people who produced this email series never saw each other in person while making it (and some met in person only once) — and we didn’t have any Zoom calls either.

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