Did Your Last Text Deserve a Talk?

Posted by on Sep 24, 2012 in General, Interpersonal Communication | 5 comments

Not a phone to be seen. Real conversation. Can I do my happy dance?

(A momentary break from college success… I haven’t written about general interpersonal communication in a while. Well, I’m about to teach two sections starting today, so how timely, right? I’ll try to tame myself with my topic. I think I’ve made my feelings about texting known in the past. If you have a strong counter-argument, I sure welcome your point of view. Ready to start the conversation? I am!)

Some of the most uncomfortable conflicts I’ve been in over recent months involved texting.

Every time a miscommunication occurs via this medium, I spiritedly say, “I’m done! No more texting for me!” But then I realize that I’m stuck because it seems like no one is answering their phones anymore, and even people well past my age (I’m in my early 40s) are texting, texting, texting!

So here’s the latest: I received some disappointing news this summer. News that absolutely should not have been delivered via text, but should have been delivered in a phone conversation.

Now, this is not the first time this has happened. In every case, while I found myself frustrated by the message, I was more offended by the delivery mode of the message! I find some texting to be incredibly impersonal, and, in my mind, to send uncomfortable news that way does not indicate that I mean very much to the sender of that message.

As a communication prof, I guess I’m hard-wired to analyze the way someone in my life sends information to me. If someone who supposedly cares about me texts me with disappointing news rather than calls me, does that mean that they don’t want to deal with me? That they don’t really care about me? That they aren’t interested in what I have to say in response to that message? What am I supposed to take away from the exchange?

(We could also say that the opposite is true, too: Even excellent news is shared over text! And don’t we miss hearing the zeal in someone’s voice with genuine support for us? Their varied octaves of excitement over our news? No amount of exclamation points are going to replace that.)

What I am finding is that texting has become a convenient scapegoat for people to avoid confrontation, a way to hide behind short messages for issues that they just don’t want to deal with. How healthy is that?

I have had introverted friends tell me that texting has become a way for them to hide. I think that’s a powerful admission.

What I find interesting is that texting has brought about a whole host of extremely discourteous behaviors:

  • People don’t respond to texts, yet you can see them engaging in other technological behaviors when they post update after update on Facebook (and you can’t say that every time, they’ve set their phone down–I don’t buy it).
  • People will text you in the same second that you call them, yet they won’t answer the call. The phone is perpetually on silent.
  • People won’t even apply closure to a text conversation–they simply disappear and you have to surmise that the conversation has ended.

We’re not supposed to confront these behaviors, are we? No, no, no… some of the whole point of texting is about avoidance, conscious or not.

Let’s get back to the topic of this post: Delivering unsavory news via text. Obviously, that person doesn’t want to deal with the other person’s reaction in an actual conversation. So, texting has become a really convenient and acceptable way to handle things.

I worry about the state of affairs of communication in our society. That’s not a surprise. I mean, I wrote a book about this for our young people because I’m seeing their concerning communication behaviors manifest with myself and other professors. So, I hope that in my classrooms and in my overall message, I can remind my students (and die-hard texters who’ve stopped talking) that a certain percentage of conversations must still happen face-to-face–and there is an art to communication that can only be honed by continuing to practice face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication (even in those difficult conversations!).

So what’s the communication lesson here? 

In interpersonal communication, we teach that “rich” communication includes all the cues: verbal and nonverbal. That makes texting a “cheap” means of communicating. Some texting is convenient. I get that. But for a deeper, important message, think about the sub-text, if you will, when you “cheapen” that conversation with a text. The person may believe they aren’t worth your taking the time to have a real conversation with them.

I get that maybe you don’t like confrontation or you don’t want someone mad at you.

Guess what?

You are hurting the relationship more and risking greater and uglier confrontation by not dealing with the issue head-on. Why not instead tell the person “I feel concerned/scared/worried about about having this talk with you…” and they may soften their position?

Something else to think about: Texting ups the ante on messy conflict. Do you think people say the same things in writing (tapping out words) that they say when speaking to someone? Of course not! Also, you can’t read someone’s inflection on text, so misinterpretation is easy. Then, you may have an even bigger fight than if you’d had a talk!

Finally, save yourself time! If the other person engages and you engage again, then the back and forth is likely going to take even more minutes or hours than had you given that discussion the space it deserved. And here’s the kicker: You may end up “live” anyway to do damage control!

One important note: If you are on the other side of this dilemma, as I often am, and you are the recipient of the unwanted texts, you can refuse to participate. In fact, several times, I receive the text then I pick up the phone. Sometimes, the person won’t call back (which can send a real message about them, you, the worth of your relationship, etc.), and then you have to decide if you’ll resort to text, e-mail or something else, but remember, you do have a choice not to text if it makes you uncomfortable.

I have to accept that texting is here to stay. I challenge you to reconsider the types of conversations you’re having over text. If you’d be willing to have one do-over via phone or face-to-face, or alter your percentages of texting vs real life conversation (or at least consider it), I’d be thrilled!

Spirited texters, come counter, or non-texters, come agree! You can’t text me, but you can comment!



  1. I text because I just don’t like talking on the phone. It seems faster to me. I’m sure that’s not a good reason. However, if I had to deliver important news, I would pick up the phone or, more likely, make it face-to-face.

    • Hi, Kenna,

      I hear a lot of people say that they don’t like talking on the phone. I suppose it is just personal choice and texting has made it easier for people to make that choice. I just can’t help but worry about where the personal connection has gone when everyone is tapping out words on a screen. I also worry about the lack of conversations “meandering” when texting occurs. Seriously… I personally love when you are talking to someone and a conversation can just go anywhere. That just doesn’t happen via text. It is very structured. I ordinarily love structure in the rest of my life… but I guess not in that one place.

      I suppose it will be interesting to see what happens when our younger ones get older and how communication evolves!

      I appreciate your comments, as always :-) .

  2. How true! I’ve come to the conclusion that if I have a quick comment or question, texting will do. For example, “I’m going to be late to flute practice. B there @ 7:15.” However, if I need to figure out something more complicated and involved (who will be home first to let the dog out? And who will buy groceries – and where? What do we need?) and I find myself texting Q after Q I generally end up calling. This seems to limit misunderstandings as well as make the exchange more personal. For personal messages and conversations, calling feels more intimate to me.

    • Hi, Julie,
      I think the same way that you do and texting has become really convenient for those quick logistics. Other logistics, I find, can become so tedious, and I usually just text, “Can we please call each other?” so the other person and I can continue the plans. Otherwise, the texting takes forever and I’ve actually had plans go completely awry because the texting became confused!

      I will be interested to see how the texting issue plays itself out. I just heard from one of my tweeps in Triberr that the new iPhone 5 has an option where you can either accept a phone call or text back. That scares me. What is Apple thinking taking yet another part of voice-to-voice communication away? Ugh!

      Thank you so much for writing!

  3. Kimberley … that is some seriously exotic cleansing! Bravo.


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