Aka–The Three Dots of Doom. . .
Why do we love our smartphones? Control.
As in, it gives us control over our communication. We can take the time to craft a perfect response, or to change our plans at the last minute.
Why do we hate our smartphones? Control.
That is, lack of. As in, you are sitting and watching the three dots of doom (officially known as “the typing awareness indicator”) as they bounce around, promising a long and soulful response, and then…nothing.
When it comes to enhancing our lives, smartphones are a mixed blessing. And whether we love or hate our smartphones, we have to admit that they have changed the way we relate to one another.
So what are the sneaky pitfalls of owning a smartphone and how can we avoid them?
Pitfall #1. Lack of context.
Probably the most talked about pitfall of communicating by text is the lack of context. We can’t see the body language and facial expressions of the sender, or hear the all-important tone of their voice. Was that irony, sarcasm, or contempt? We are often left with emoticonfusion. Is that a smile? A smirk? Are they laughing with us, or at us?
On the other side of the equation, we don’t get to see the recipient’s expression when they read our text, so that we can self-correct if we have been misunderstood.
In real life we are generally able to tell immediately if our words cause confusion or pain. But when we are texting, we may not even know that we have been misunderstood until eight texts later when suddenly we realize that we are in the middle of an argument. The comedians Key and Peele have an excellent video illustrating this point! https:
Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, tells us that we can only build empathy in face-to-face communication. The more we communicate online, the less we are able to empathize with our friends and partners.
The inability to show empathy via text leads to communication that is hollow and unsatisfying.
This ultimately leads to relationships that lack the deep connection that is the whole point of intimate relationships in the first place.
Pitfall #2: Texting is public.
Because of the aforementioned lack of context, many of the texts we receive are ambiguous. We wonder what that “Hmmm” really means. We look at it again and again. We ask our friends. We ask our therapist. We think that if we look at it long enough, or ask other people enough, we will eventually learn the true meaning of said text. Wrong.
Ambiguity in texts leads to two things: 1.Rumination. This happens when you read and re-read and re-read that text, with no possible definitive conclusion, and 2. Sharing the text with other people. Many of us, after spending hours ruminating, are unable to resist the temptation to forward the texts to their friends to get an “objective” opinion.
Conducting our relationships in the public domain does damage on several levels.
In my therapy practice I have often seen high-schoolers who go directly to their friends’ opinions by having their argument on social media in the first place. How are partners ever going to feel that their relationship is a safe place to be vulnerable, when all their “friends” know everything they say?
If this trend continues, we will soon have adults who are unable to be vulnerable in their relationships at all.
Pitfall #3: Texting leads to power struggles.
Now we come to those famous 3 dots…
We all know they are there and what they mean. So when we begin a response, and then hesitate or change our mind, we know the other person is waiting and watching. If you are under age 80 you really can’t plead ignorance.
If you are on the receiving end of the “typing awareness indicator” it can be enormously frustrating to watch and wait only to finally receive nothing, or a brief response that was obviously written after a longer response was erased. What did they “almost” say? Was it good? Was it bad? If you are the kind of person who easily ruminates, these three dots can be your undoing.
Much has been written about how ignoring texts is the new power move.
When we don’t receive a timely response from someone, we quickly make assumptions about our importance in their life, and whether or not they even like us.
It goes like this:
They could text me if they wanted to (they don’t call it instant messaging for nothing!), so:
Not texting back immediately = not wanting to text me = they don’t even like me.
The younger the people texting are, the more they are likely to make this assumption. Why? Because adolescent brains are programmed to make the approval of their peers the most important factor in their lives.
Soon we will have a generation of adults who were conditioned (yep, just like Pavlov’s dogs!) to “salivate” at the sound of a text arriving on their phone. That familiar ping will signal that they have friends, they are important, they have value as a person. It will be irresistible.
Texting isn’t going away anytime soon. We need to learn how to mediate the negative effects it can have on our relationships, and how to keep from ruminating about the true meaning of the latest text from a friend or partner.
So how can we be smarter than our smartphones?
1. Know when to call, instead of texting.
Beware of the problem of ambiguity that is inherent to texting, and skip the text and make a call if you suspect that your text could be misinterpreted.
Younger generations are increasingly reluctant to pick up the phone and call. They feel it is an imposition on their friends to expect them to pick up the phone and answer right away. Moreover, they find talking on the phone intimidating.
If this is how you feel, you are not alone. Nonetheless, making a phone call in order to avoid a misinterpretation of a text is probably worth it, in the long run. A phone call leaves both people more vulnerable because you don’t have time to think about your responses, but…
it is this very vulnerability that leads to a closer emotional connection.
Practice making phone calls in contexts that are less emotionally charged, like doctor’s appointments or dinner reservations. Making phone calls is a skill that you can learn like any other and it will improve your relationships and also make you more confident and effective in your professional life.
2. Do not share the texts you receive from your partner with your friends.
Your relationship needs to be a safe place for each of you to be vulnerable. Otherwise, you will never be able to have a deep connection with your partner. Sharing their texts shows your partner that you do not cherish their thoughts and feelings as private communications, and you will have to work hard to earn back their trust.
If you are young enough that sharing texts is considered acceptable, you may still be surprised at the difference it will make in your relationship if you do not share your texts. Experiment and see for yourself.
3. Be aware of your own ideas about response time.
If you are offended or hurt by a lack of response to your text, think about the formula we discussed above:
“They are slow to respond because they didn’t want to = they must not like me!”
In therapy, we examine this kind of thinking for what we call “cognitive distortions”. This means that the premise of the thought you are having is not true, and you can examine and correct this. Let’s look at the example above:
“They are slow to respond…”. The first part of this sentence may actually already be false. The response of the other person may be perfectly timely in their own eyes–some people expect responses within 1 minute (after all, our response time in normal conversation is 1/5 of a second!), and others may think that any response in the next 10 minutes is just fine. In their eyes, a response within 4 or 5 minutes means you are special!
“…because they didn’t want to”. It’s easy to imagine that it’s always possible for someone to respond immediately, so if they don’t, it’s because they don’t want to. The truth is that there are often many legitimate reasons why someone would have to wait to respond. Despite your certainty that they are free to respond to you, you can never really be sure.
“= they must not like me.” When we look at this in writing it is much easier to see that “assuming the worst” is a cognitive distortion. If someone is slow (in your eyes) to respond, whether they were able to or not, there can be many reasons why. In fact, if this person really cares what you think, they may be deliberately slow to respond because it is important to them to craft a perfect response. Exactly the opposite of what you had assumed.
Most importantly, giving the sender the benefit of the doubt, for example: “maybe they were busy and didn’t see it”, or “maybe they wanted to take some time to respond in a meaningful way” may or may not be true, but it will most certainly improve your own peace of mind. You can always readjust your interpretation later when you have more information.
In the meantime, you can go about your life and enjoy the moment free of the text-induced anxiety that Apple knows keeps us so dependent on our iPhones.
Smartphones are here to stay. If we try to ignore them we can end up making our lives even more complicated in a world that is currently structured to use the benefits that smartphones provide us.
Nevertheless, we can learn strategies to manage our cell phone experiences so that the control remains in our own hands, not in the hands of the research teams at Apple, et. al., who are continually looking to find ways to keep us addicted to our iPhones.
If we pay attention to the ways we use and respond to our phones, we can improve our relationships and keep our peace of mind.
If you are interested in learning more about your teenager’s anxiety, read my blog post about the effect of social media on teens.