Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
A client I’ll call Tom was telling me about a misunderstanding that had recently occurred between him and his wife when they were texting each other.
“We started off fine,” he said. “And then I told her I was going to be getting an early start tomorrow morning so I could see the doctor before work. She told me she didn’t know about that. I told her I had just set it up. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked me. I got distracted at that point and didn’t remember to answer her text for a couple of hours. When I finally got back to her and explained that the doctor had just forgotten one of my routine tests from my last physical, she was really upset with me for not being clear. I didn’t know I had freaked her out.”
I had this image of my client pocketing his smartphone to focus on something else and leaving his wife to guess why he had suddenly made a doctor’s appointment. “So you didn’t realize until later that she was upset?” I asked him.
His answer to my question illustrated a fundamental problem with texting. “I can’t see the face behind the words,” he answered. “If I had known she was worried, I would have texted her back right away.” And then he added, “Or better yet, given her a quick call.”
You text with an intention. But is the intention being understood?
I love technology. I think it has revolutionized the way we communicate. This site is an example.
But I also have concerns about how we sometimes communicate via technology when we need to be having direct, human-to-human contact. Voice to voice, face to face, in the moment. Back-and-forth texting, sometimes with long stretches of time between texts, is all too often not up to the task we are trying to accomplish. (And I won’t get started on my experiences with how clients get caught up in long email chains!)
Here’s why texting can lead to misunderstanding:
We communicate on multiple levels. Think about a recent conversation you had about a difficult topic, or a topic that started out simple but became more complicated. You were aware of the other person’s facial expressions and their tone of voice. This helped you to gauge how they were receiving your words. And most likely, the conversation needed to be completed without interruption. Otherwise, feelings could have built up that were way out of proportion to the situation.
With texting, we assume the intention and the emotions behind the words on the screen. It’s easy to make erroneous assumptions. You may read something into a word or phrase that is not intended. And you may be imagining the other person’s facial expression and tone of voice, but be totally off base.
Chronic conditions can heighten emotions. Due to ongoing concerns about your health, your partner may be more likely to have an emotional reaction when you text about your health. This is what Tom experienced with his wife. What could have been immediately clarified via a phone call instead resulted in his wife imagining a much worse scenario.
Without involving the senses, the possibility of misunderstanding is greatly increased. When you text, you are responding to what you imagine the other person is feeling. You can easily assume the other person is angry, for example, when they are just being brief. You can assume they are on the same page as you when they are hurt instead. You can assume you are being ignored when the other person is caught up in something else. And we know where making assumptions gets us.
Once the conversation gets off track, it can go anywhere. Once the horse is out of the barn, it’s really hard to get it corralled again.
Texting is fine for a quick catch-up. Messages like, “Have a great day!” or “What time will you be home tonight?” or “What do you want for dinner?” It’s not fine for discussing any topic that might bring up complex emotions, or be easily misunderstood, like Tom’s doctor’s appointment.
A rule of thumb to consider: think before you text. Here are examples of questions to ask yourself before you pull out your smartphone: Do I need to tell my partner something that might be easily misinterpreted or cause an emotional reaction in either of us? Do we have to discuss an issue that is complicated in some way? Is there something we need to hash out and come to an agreement on?
In short, before you text, consider the importance of communicating in a way that promotes understanding and harmony in your relationship. And helps you to avoid misunderstanding. With these goals in mind, I think it will be clear to you whether you need to press “Messages” or “Phone.”
What’s good or not so good about texting with your friends or partner? Add a comment below and tell us about it.