The Art Of Overanalyzing Text Messages

There have been many great books and articles written about the art of writing- how to write formal letters, how to write love letters (I’m a big fan of Tom Chiarella), and even how to write for the web.

Here’s my tongue-in-cheek guide to writing artfully in SMS format, or on Facebook and Twitter. (If you’re going to ask me what the point of such a guide might be, this article probably isn’t for you. Disengage immediately!)

I think anything worth doing is worth doing well- especially in the realm of writing, or expression in general.

Writing is about communication.

Face-to-face interaction is the richest form of communication. The amount of data transmitted is immense: tone of voice, inflections,  body language, facial expression, et cetera. How the message is transmitted speaks louder than the message itself.

Tone matters.

When you’re writing long handwritten letters, as was commonplace in ye olde age, you had the time and space to communicate your tone. There are all sorts of little hints, too- the style of the handwriting, the frequency of cancellations (if any), the addition of post scripts. If a letter was of great importance, you often wrote a draft before re-writing it. A letter of passion, on the other hand, might be more effective if it is written quickly, without any censorship or editing.

Things have gotten a lot more succinct since then. We’ve traded dynamics for efficiency and convenience. It’s harder than ever before to express subtle emotions. But I believe it can be done. Hyper-analyse the world of SMSing? Challenge accepted!

Overall structure.

I personally have a habit of SMSing in fully formed sentences, or at least well-formed fragments. But not necessarily in perfect English. For some reason, an SMS written in perfect English can be rather intimidating. I think this is partially because SMSes are necessarily short, so “What are you doing tonight?” somehow seems a little menacing, or even demanding. That’s the sort of message I’d send a business partner, or maybe even a romantic interest. It puts a hint of pressure. Between friends, I prefer “whatcha doing tonight?”

The tilde as a subtle punctuation mark.

I wrote this entire blog post primarily because I wanted to talk about the tilde. Oftentimes I find that the regular question mark puts the recipient on the spot. Somehow, a question mark in a text message seems a little imposing. “What are you doing tonight?” is a question. The question demands an answer.

Sometimes it can be interesting to send something like “what are you doing tonight” without the question mark. This, I find, allows the recipient to interpret the urgency of the message.  These sort of things, to me, are too important to leave to chance!

Enter the tilde. According to Wikipedia, this is common usage in Japanese punctuation- so I think I got this idea from watching Anime and communicating with otaku. The tilde, in Japanese culture, is used:

  • To indicate a long or drawn-out vowel (ですよね〜 or あ〜〜〜), usually for comic or cute effect
  • To indicate or suggest that music is playing: ♬ 〜

Eureka! That’s exactly it! There’s a certain chill-out vibe to it, isn’t there? As if a pleasant guitar chord was gently strummed as you were saying it. Consider the following examples:

1: “I’m not angry!!!”
2: “I’m not angry.”
3: “I’m not angry”
4: “I’m not angry~”

Let’s say you just received this from your girlfriend in response to “are you angry?”

In the first three examples, it’s still entirely possible- and likely- that she’s actually still angry, but merely claiming that she isn’t. (If your girlfriend tells you she isn’t angry, it makes good sense to presume that she most probably still is.) The tilde is the only surefire escape- it adds a melodic, sing-song quality to the message. (If your girlfriend uses this, but she’s actually still angry- damn, son, your relationship is complicated.)

Actually, if she really isn’t angry, she’ll probably elaborate further. The more succinct the response, the deeper the shithole you’ve dug yourself into. Good luck, bro.

When used instead of a question mark, the tilde adds a drawl-like, lazy vibe to the tone which suggests that the question doesn’t really need to be answered.

1: “Are you doing anything tonight?”
2: “Whatcha doing tonight!”
3: “whatcha doing tonight”
4: “whatcha doing tonight~”

In 1, the question mark, grammar and capitalization make for a rather formal effect- something you’d use with a business partner, or a person you tend to mind your p’s and q’s with. I think it works great in the early stages of courtship, when you want to imply a little bit of pressure on the other person. That’s flirting!

In 2, the exclamation mark hints at enthusiasm. It’s a little bit flirty and a little bit fun. I often find that this is a good way to mask any political or subversive undertones- I’ve noticed that girls who are adept at bitching and underhand skullduggery tend to use exclamation marks extensively. It’s like a kind of poker-face- by being consistently chirpy, you can never tell when they’re pissed off, or preparing to emasculate you.

3 is blah. Blah isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think this is the standard mode between guy friends who’re too lazy to bother with punctuation. It can be quite ambiguous and neutral- it doesn’t really colour the tone of the message. I find that it tends to piggyback off the tone of the previous message. It also tends to imply that the sender is tired, or busy, or plain lazy.

The effect of 4 is playful and fun. The sender is perhaps bored, and has a little too much free time. (This is usually me.)

Never compromise on grammar.

You can cut out letters and words, mellow out capitalization and punctuation- but there is no excuse for improper grammar. Text messages with good grammar communicate that you are proficient at the language, but you’re choosing to be comfortable and lazy- like a pair of worn in jeans that fit just right.

I don’t even want to give an example of bad grammar, even for demonstration purposes. (For the record, though- I don’t believe in being anal about the subtleties of grammar in the grey areas where it can go either way- for example, arguing between “Not one of us is” and “Not one of us are”. I personally prefer the former over the latter, but I’m not going to shoot anybody over it. English can be messy sometimes, and we gotta learn to roll with it.)

Hashtags and Memes.

This is some pretty high level stuff right here, and I like to pretend that I came up with it myself (although of course, I didn’t). Internet memes have become a wonderful way to communicate vast amounts of information in minimal characters. The Twitter hashtag (invented by Chris Messina) is a fantastic phenomenon. I love it because it allows for self-referencing, which allows you to add a lot of depth. Example:

“Today is the day that I’m going to get ALL my work done! #delusionalthinking  #liesanddeceit”

You could also use this to incorporate memes into your messages or status updates, for example:

1: Watch the football game and make it to work on time? #challengeaccepted
2: omg, you made spaghetti for dinner? #megusta
3: I FINALLY DID IT! #successkid
4: She loves me, but she’s too afraid to say it. #truestory

It can get a bit gimmicky if you try too hard (which I think I’m doing right now, because I can’t think of any good examples off the top of my head), but I think if you find the appropriate moment, it can be powerfully witty and expressive.

Abbreviations. We often type lol when we’re not really laughing out loud. It’s a kind of tic, like ah, um, er, like, and so on. It simply serves to take the edge off of messages. “Im not angry lol”. It might seem stupid, but it’s convenient and it serves a purpose.

I firmly believe that language has its own wisdom that is almost independent of its users (or more accurately, emergent from its users), and that it’s frightfully efficient. We wouldn’t be using tics if they didn’t serve a purpose. That said, it’s very possible to over-use them, sometimes to the point where they become a substitute for actual thought. Check yourself. If you’re guilty, then you really ought to make an effort to cut it out. Else you just look stupid. Lol.

Is there anything else I’ve left out? Share your thoughts and over-analysis! I know I’m not the only over-analyzer out there! Right? Right?


About Visakan Veerasamy

I work at ReferralCandy, write at PoachedMag and blog at... here. This is my blog. You can find me on Twitter at @visakanv. I deactivated my Facebook account a while ago because the noise was too much for me to handle. How does this authorship nonsense work?
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