The Use and Abuse of Text Messages

I have a new(-ish) pet peeve: receiving a text message when an e-mail (or a Facebook message or whatever) would suffice. As a rule of thumb, if a message does not require my attention within 24 hours, don’t text me. E-mail me.

E-mail’s pretty awesome. I can flag messages I think are important (or star them in Gmail). I can use tools like Boomerang to postpone responding to messages until later. I can search for old e-mails when I need to recall something that someone said. I can set up filters to sort my e-mails based on context. I can forward funny pictures to my friends. I can attach things (like calendar invites!). I can read and write them on my phone or my laptop. I can have more than one e-mail address and separate work e-mails from not-work e-mails. I can CC and BCC and do all the wonderful things that have been part of e-mail since time immemorial (1978-ish?).

I can’t do (a lot of) that with text messages. Sure, Google and Apple and whoever have extended the functionality of the humble text message. But even today, there are still lots of things that the average text message can’t do.

The one thing text messages do well that e-mails don’t, however, is get my attention. It makes my phone vibrate (and, on occasion, chime). It screams, “I HAVE ARRIVED! LOOK AT ME NOW!” It has a sufficiently inflated sense of urgency that my car will ask if it should read my text messages aloud when they come in, something it (thankfully) doesn’t do with e-mail. And, generally, this is a good thing. There are, on occasion, Very Important Things™ that demand my prompt attention (but not so prompt that a phone call has been initiated), and a text message is a good way of conveying this.

But if the power of the text message lies in its conveyance of urgency, then the responsibility of the text-er is to refrain from texting things that are not urgent. Why? Because urgency interrupts. And interruptions are @#$%^&* annoying. Caso en punto.1

1 Incidentally, this is exactly why I’ve stopped signing in to Google Chat. Hangouts. Whatever.

People seem to be adverse to e-mailing short messages. It’s almost as if they’re visualizing their tiny one line e-mail sitting next to some multi-paragraph newsletter from the Cal Alumni Association and felt wanting. Well fret not! For I generally do not read most of the Cal Alumni Association’s paragraphs and promise to hold your single line in great esteem.

Or maybe they feel that e-mail is too formal, as if e-mail must resemble its namesake and be of sufficient lineage to justify a 49 cent stamp and a bit of spit. Again, a falsehood! E-mail requires no stamps. The spit is optional.

But if, even with my admonishments, e-mail still feels awkward, our modern times have gifted us with a plethora of means of communication other than texting! Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn.2 These are things I regularly check. They forward to my e-mail. They have mobile apps with delightful little notification counters begging to be decremented.  And, most importantly, there is no conveyance of urgency with these apps (“Sally wants to connect on LinkedIn. She wants to connect NOW.“)

2 Just kidding, don’t send me LinkedIn messages.

Of course, there are varying degrees of transgression, as well as outright exceptions to the rule.3 So I’ve provided some helpful examples of good text messages and less good text messages to help illustrate the point:

  • “I’m at the restaurant already. Where are you?” Good.
  • “We should hang out at some indeterminate point in the future.” Less Good.
  • “I’ve had a terrible day and need to talk about it. Can you call me when you have a moment?” Good.
  • “Sup?” Less Good.
  • “Why aren’t you responding to my e-mails?” Fine.
  • “Help! I’m surrounded by poisonous snakes attracted to the sound of my voice!” Good.
  • “Here is a link to a funny YouTube video:” Less Good.

3 Some of these exceptions prove the rule as well.

As with all things, context matters.  And I’m no saint on this front either. I know I’m being an ass by requesting this, but I feel a little assholery now limits possible assholery later. So, if you’re a frequent non-urgent texter, fewer text messages please. The world will be a better place for it.