Why Text Messages Leave
Room for Misinterpretation

Confusing Text Message

In general, misinterpretation is caused by preconceptions, assumptions, prejudices, or lack of deeper understanding.  It all boils down to perception.  And because perceptions are as individual as human beings, it's no wonder that misinterpretation happens often during communication.

One mode of communication particularly open to misinterpretation is text messages.  Because text messaging is immediate and in the now, it often feels more real than a recent experience with another person.  Why?  Because there it is - looking right at you on your phone, watch, or message screen.

The Downside of Texting

In my opinion, text messages should show a warning label before they are opened:
Attention Lydia:  The message you are about to read could have been written hastily, could be corrupted by auto-correct, or could have been sent before completed.  Do not take its contents seriously until you have confirmed and clarified the meaning and context with the writer of the message.

Your understanding of the words you read is determined by your mindset, mood, and the pace at which you read them. Texting is often a hurried activity on both the writing and reading sides, leaving much room for errors and a lack of clarity.  Many texters these days use little or no punctuation, creating a stream of "find me if you can" gibberish.  Using all CAPS signals shouting and all lower text comes across as lazy. 

And let's not forget the auto-correct feature so popular these days!  Speed-writing a quick message invariably results in auto correction which, as some of us have learned painfully, should never ever have been put into type. 

Texting leaves room for feelings to become complicated.  Once your message is out there, it is difficult to pull back on it with a "Let's talk later."  The communication has been sent, the perception is in place, and the situation is now uncomfortable at best.

Handle with Care

As always, my theme is urging civility through etiquette-ful choices.  When it comes to texting, you have a choice of taking a chance on sending an unclear or confusing message, slowing down to punctuate, type correctly, and proofread your message, or skipping the text and using your voice to speak your message.

Making the appropriate choice will depend on the situation.  Text messages are convenient and quick, which is why we love them.  But this mode of communication works best when:

  • The communication is quick. 
    "Good morning.  How are you?" 
    "Please pick up a gallon of milk on your way home." 
    "Meet me at Barney's Pub after work?" 
    "Thanks for a terrific evening!"
  • The message is benign.  Save the serious news - good or bad - for phone calls or face-to-face conversations.  And avoid gossip or confidential information.  Any electronic message can be sent around the world in a flash!
  • Your words do not carry much emotion.  Emotions are personal and should be shared in a more personal method than via text message.  The exception to this guideline is when you want to say, "I love you."  Say those three words any way you can as often as you can and to whomever you please.  It's the one message we all need to see and hear as often as possible!
  • You've proofread your message.  Give thought to how the recipient will read your words.  Is your message as clear as you intend it to be?

Consider skipping your personal style and aiming only for clear and concise communication.

When You Shouldn't Send Text Messages

By now, you probably have an understanding of the pitfalls of text messages.  It's important to remember that what you write has as much to do with where you are - physically as well as emotionally - as it does with how hurriedly you are typing.

For this reason, it may be best to avoid sending your text messages when you:

  • Are angry or emotionally stressed.
  • Are driving, walking on a busy street, walking your dog, or caring for a child.
  • Have any doubt who the recipient is.
  • Need to discuss your relationship with the recipient.
  • Need to discuss anything that will take a significant amount of time or typing.
  • Aren't sure how your message will be perceived.

Text messaging is a wonderful thing.  It's a convenient problem solver when you need a question answered or to check in with someone.  But when used inappropriately, it can lead to misinterpretation, misunderstandings, and can even damage a relationship.

The adage "everything in moderation" definitely applies to texting just as much as other useful things.  As important as communication is to us, we should do all we can to keep it effective.