Stop texting like this: How 1 extra character turns a plain message into a passive-aggressive dig

If you're a stickler for proper punctuation, it might be hurting your texting relationships

Published December 9, 2015 10:24PM (EST)

        (<a href=''>franckreporter</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(franckreporter via iStock/Salon)

One of the best things about modern technology is seeing your phone flash with a text message. The rapid-fire form of communication allows us to engage in conversation almost as fluidly as we would face-to-face. Some of the worst messages to receive are shorter messages that are made curt by a period.


“That’s fine.”


Ugh. It’s hard to argue for terse texting as anything other than a form of passive aggressiveness. More often than not, a period doesn’t make sense grammatically because the upsetting statements are rarely complete sentences. The use of periods in this way signals the sudden end of a conversation, like slamming the brakes at full speed.

A study published in Computers in Human Behavior explored the effects of punctuation on modern forms of communication, namely texting. Researchers found that text messages ending with periods are more likely to be perceived as insincere than those not ending with the formidable-looking dot.

The study was led by Celia Klin at Binghamton University, and sought to determine whether the period has evolved from a standard form of communication to a social cue.

Turns out, it has.

Study participants were presented with a series of exchanges written either as text messages or by hand on a note. When the participants read a reply that was followed by a period, they noted the message read as insincere; but this wasn’t the case when read on a handwritten note.

Because communication and correspondence via technologies like texts and emails dominate our lives, we’re now challenged to determine tone through grammar and syntax on a screen.

In many ways it’s limiting, and automatically hardens a message’s meaning. The harsh light of the screen, block font of the words and lack of more human elements of communication like facial expressions and fluctuations in someone’s voice make us sensitive to interpreting the intended message.

“Sure.” no longer reads as an agreement, but passive aggressive indifference.

When we’re exposed to handwritten communication, like notes or letters, we’re less inclined to take offense to punctuation. Part of this may be because the act of reading something handwritten is associated with a certain degree of sentimentality. There’s something tender and romantic to thinking about someone picking up a pen and connecting mind to pen to paper, and then sending it off. In terms of handwritten correspondence, punctuation makes sense because it allows us to follow the writer’s train of thought. Messages written and punctuated via text message have the opposite effect. Texts are largely open-ended forms of communication, and ending a statement with a period seems like cutting off communication entirely.

Exclamation marks, however, are having a moment. By reading text messages, email and correspondences over Facebook messenger, you’d think there’s never been a period in history in which so many people were so enthusiastic about everything.

Klin’s research has suggested the exclamation mark now serves as a buffer to make messages read as more friendly or sincere, the same way “LOL” is used to connote lightheartedness. By manipulating the meaning behind punctuation marks, we’re now able to assess an interlocutor’s tone. No longer do periods and exclamation marks merely separate two thoughts from one another, but reveal a great deal about the person we’re communicating with. It’s a confusing and interesting example of modern language that suggests our language is somehow lacking in portraying sentimentality.

We all need to be more sincere.


By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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