You’ve just sent the text that will change your life. It might be to that girl you’ve had a crush on for a year, or that classmate you’re hoping will get you the industry connection that could make your career. Sending your hopes and dreams along with one little sentence, you wait.
Three dots appear.
Then they disappear.
The inevitable anxiety caused by this kind of situation is relatively new, having only emerged with the onset of what linguists call “synchronous communication” in text-based media. As opposed to “asynchronous” communication, which refers to static message sending like email, synchronous texting has been designed to follow some of the natural rhythms of speech, allowing the recipient of a message to know the other user is “talking,” thus prompting them to retain an investment in the conversation.
These design changes take many forms, including message receipts (the little tags that read “delivered” or “read”) or the aforementioned and dreaded three dots. They’ve been around for a while, too – some of the earliest implementations include the creaking door used in AOL chatrooms, letting you know when members of the conversation have signed on and off.
But if synchronous conversation is intended to mimic natural conversation, why do these features cause us so much stress? Part of the issue may lie in the incomplete representation of the conversation. Indicators such as message receipts let you know the other member of the conversation is paying attention, but they don’t let on much else. The other person could be flat out ignoring you or simply delaying a reply since they’re on the freeway, and you’d have no way of knowing. And it’s tempting to always assume the worst.
It’s also tempting to rewrite and revise your texts, especially in conversations where you want to tread carefully. And in many cases, it’s expected – unlike in traditional conversation, it’s hard to compensate for a poorly worded statement or accidental slip-up, since everything you say has been recorded and is easily accessible.
But in traditional conversation, if you pause for a full half-minute before replying, the person you’re talking to is going to start wondering just what it is you’re debating. And that suspicion applies to texting too.
Sometimes we’ll revert to ridiculous measures to get around this dynamic. I’ve heard of people typing entire messages outside of the conversation so they can copy and paste them in without showing that they “worked” on what to say, or fake typing to make it seem like a reply received more attention than it did
The paranoia can increase even further when we don’t know the details about the service we’re using. I’ve had Facebook chat boxes pop up spontaneously long after the conversation had finished, making me wonder if the participant on the other end had begun a final message but thought better of it.
But if you’re really stressing out that much over a text message, maybe it’s time to take a step back. If this conversation is so important, should you really be having it by text in the first place? Technology can be unreliable – many of the notifications sent by IOS and Facebook can in fact be “phantoms” caused by software bugs, and the stress over messaging has even been used in pranks leveraging an animated gif of the typing symbol to beleaguer the text-OCD. It’s not worth hinging your anxiety on what could be purely imaginary awkwardness.
I’m not going to say “make a phone call,” because I’d rather chew off my own fingers than follow that advice myself in some situations. But you can always try turning off the notifications in your preferences, and start simply saying what you mean.
Even when the age of information barrages us with lies and it seems like there’s a thousand miles of digital distance between our frail internet personas, honesty will always be the best policy.
Copeland is a member of the class of 2015.