Belfast Telegraph

Why a phoney walk is the least of your worries in the poisonous medium that is text messaging

It is hard to imagine any exchange ending well when the ability to take offence is almost built in, writes Gail Walker

Texting makes you walk silly. Sorry, sillily. Scientists have discovered that people adopt "an increasingly cautious step strategy" while texting and walking at the same time. In common parlance, that means they walk very slowly indeed and tend to use baby steps, because they are not really too sure about obstacles in the way.

Alas, if that was the only drawback to texting, having our streets filled with rambling, ambling refugees from the Ministry of Silly Walks might be rather charming.

But texting itself? Yes, we all know the joy of reading a few special words from a loved one, or a text offering support when in extremis, but equally was there ever a more monstrous way of communicating?

Of course, social media communication can involve lashings of insincerity, vitriol and bile, but, generally speaking, most people put on their best face, because they want to seem like a decent sort - a good friend (even if technically speaking we never actually met our "friend").

So, people try to be compassionate, tolerant, ever ready for a friendly debate about the issues of the day and prepared to show our more sensitive side.

Hence, the over-the-top "You ok, hon?" (apart from New Yoickers in 1940s film noirs, who has ever used the word "hon" for honey?), "DM me, okay?" and all-purpose "support" phrases - "Don't let them grind you down", "Haters are gonna hate".

And then there are the "sharings". When Earth is wiped out by some passing meteorite and our smouldering planet is visited by archaeologists from Zardok One, our Facebook postings will convince them that we were a lifeform that worshipped cats - Hitler cats, cats pushing other cats down stairs, cats with incredibly big eyes, cats photobombing, cats being friendly with dogs. If it has fur, we love it.

Still, at least Facebook forces us to try and be civil. Texting, on the other hand, is - stripped of the pretences - a mano-a-mano fight up a dark alley, a primeval fight for survival.

First of all, every text - stripped, by its nature, of context and nuance - is an unexploded timebomb of ambiguity.

True, banal informational statements such as "Going to be late for Judy's party" are fine, but anything else? Prepare for tensions.

Take "You ok?" Perfectly innocuous? Mmm ... why are they asking if I'm ok? Have they heard something? Is this some kind of opening gambit - a social nicety before embarking on some terrible news?

Or a rebuke that I haven't been keeping in regular touch, that my periods of text silence have been noted? And, if so, isn't there a faint air of aggrievedness in the query?

Eventually, you type in "I'm fine. You?" and press send. At this point, you realise that your "holding" text might sound more than a little niggardly. In fact, verging on the downright passive-aggressive and, depending how the recipient reads it, sarcastic.

Now you have two choices: hold your nerve and hope your "friend" (becoming less of a friend by the second) reads your text the right way, or you send another one adding to your previous statement with homely little confessional observations: "Ghastly day. Stinking head cold", or "Have to go to Judy's tonight", or "See crisis at Stormont (again!)".

But, then, isn't a second message a little bit like supplication, a semi-tacit recognition that your first text had been a bit brusque? In which case, your "friend" (damn his eyes) has "won" this little bout of 3-D text chess?

In which case, who do they think they are? They don't own you. Don't you have a right to a little privacy? Why are they STALKING you?

And all that from "You ok?"

No wonder we're increasingly using emoticons. Little drawings to plead with our friends - please don't read my text in the wrong spirit. Look, there's a little smiley face to say it's a joke and here's a heart to say I still love you.

Is that what we've become - grown-ups who have to communicate through the medium of cartoons, abbreviations and cringeworthy clarifications?

Plus, there are STILL no accepted rules about acceptable text behaviour. If you text someone and they reply immediately, are you now in a conversation? Is there some kind of obligation upon you to send another text?

And if you do, does it have to continue along the topic of the original text? But what if that seam is exhausted ... can you start on another topic?

And when you do hit the text tennis ball back over the net, your "friend" is faced with the same dilemma.

Game on. And so we have rambling conversations that neither we nor our friend can be sure definitely are over and so they continue with increasingly banal observations until someone has to actually call a time of death on the whole sorry proceedings by saying that their tea is ready, or Poldark is just about to start, or they are having an early night. In other words, shut the hell up.

And then the outright declaration of war - the tardily responded to text. For how long is it acceptable not to respond to a text? The working day? Really? Do they never nip out to the loo?

Are there still Gradgrind employers out there, tut-tutting at employees who have the nerve to glance at their Samsung?

But, then again, there are meetings, power-lunches and jobs where answering a text may not be advisable. ("I'm fine. You?" "In middle of brain surgery!")

It is amazing how angry one can get waiting for a text, stoking as it does the fires of paranoia. Who the hell do they think they are, taking their sweet time not replying to your text?

Maybe O2, or Vodafone, is down??? It's not. They're treating you like a fool, a fool do you hear, a fool who can be safely ignored. Well, I'll show them ... "U there?". In other words, text silence has been noticed and you'd better have a good excuse for ignoring me.

In fact, it is hard to think of any text exchange that can end happily because it is a poisonous medium almost custom-made for people to take offence.

The danger of walking into a lamp-post is the least of its problems.

Belfast Telegraph

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