Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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August 30th, 2010

SMS vs. The Language of Love

Are we texting our way out of potential relationships?



The phone call is dead, say tech-savvy social commentators. With the increasing popularity of text messaging, who needs to actually talk to someone anymore?

While text messaging may be an immediate and direct form of communication, good for flirty messages and quick hellos, I’m wondering if those instant, impersonal communiqués are hurting our dating lives and hindering our relationship formation.

Let’s be clear: I send and receive text messages. In fact, just as I typed that last sentence, a text pinged in from my husband to let me know that he’d be home in 20 minutes. That’s fine. I’m not anti-text, but I think it’s time to think critically about the pros and cons of text messaging in those early, precarious stages of dating.

Browse through my concerns and then tell me what you think in this survey: How do you use text messaging in your relationships? What works and what doesn’t? Have you had any text-related misunderstandings? Any romances blossom over SMS? Share your thoughts by taking this short survey and I’ll post your responses — as well as my advice about text messaging — in a future column.

Texting Your Way to True Love?

One of the most frustrating early dating experiences I ever had was with a guy who said, “I’ll text you and maybe we can hang out Friday.” So, Friday came and I got all dressed up and went out with my friends. As the hours dragged on, our conversation revolved around whether I should text him or wait for him to text me. And when he did finally get in touch — via text — after midnight, it was clear that charming conversation wasn’t what he was after.

Indeed, often texting is a short cut — a way to bypass the social niceties of “Hi, how are you?” and the necessary getting-to-know-you conversation. With limited typing ability, we usually ask blunt, direct questions or announce a fact. In the early days of a relationship, it’s all about subtly. And this blunt, impersonal form of communication may lead to mixed signals.

Emotions v. Emoticons

As a general rule, forming an emotional bond is harder via text than face-to-face. As part of my research on self-help advice, I asked one young man to test out a 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot section about how to ask for a small favor as a way to increase communication and intimacy. It worked like a charm in person and acceptably well on the phone, but failed miserably via text messaging. Why?

Since the 1950s, academics have studied “the silent language” of nonverbal cues. Posture and expression can speak volumes about how a person feels about you. Some social commentators worry that since we spend so much time communicating in the virtual world, we’re losing the ability to read those in-person cues.

Even phone calls offer more cues: Psychological research has shown that a smile can come through someone’s voice even while speaking on the phone. So can hesitation, regret and a slew of important emotions. Emoticons seem a poor match in the getting-to-know-you-process… and it’s hard to make a joke via text without getting misunderstood.

Does Texting Undermine Commitment?

Text messaging survey

Take the text messaging survey here. How do you use text messaging in your relationships? What works and what doesn’t? Have you had any text-related misunderstandings? Any romances blossom over SMS? Share your thoughts by taking this short survey and I’ll post your responses — as well as my advice about text messaging — in a future column.

And to make matters worse, apparently men and women don’t speak the same language via text. Women are more expressive than men, use more emoticons and write longer messages, a recent study found. Perhaps that’s why texting doesn’t boost commitment, says University of Pittsburgh communications professor John Lyne. “Texting is a way of being connected in the least costly way,” he says. “Communicative contact that engages us in such a costless and commitment-free way is surely changing the way we think of social involvement.”

And what about all the love letters that aren’t being written (or emailed) as we text (or sext) in real time? “Think of the beautifully written personal letters that were written in previous generations, many of which have been historically archived,” says Lyne. “And think of the time gap between sending a letter and receiving a reply. You realize that taking time to craft careful prose makes a lot of sense when the communicative exchange occurs at such a glacial pace. With the new technologies, messages are instantaneous and disposable, and certainly not worth laboring over the prose.”

Love Texts

Perhaps I’m a Luddite, but if it were up to me, texting would be for communicating basic information and short hellos only. The real nuanced work of romance would be conducted in person, by phone, or, in a pinch, in a thoughtfully worded email. (The United States Post Office would appreciate it if you’d write a love letter, but something tells me you haven’t purchased stamps in years.)

What do you think? Share your thoughts in this survey and I’ll post your results soon. In the meantime, be retro and pick up the phone to call someone you love.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Izzy

    If I was convinced the there’s no potential harm of radiation from cellphones, I’d make phone calls much more frequently.

  • Kathleen

    The very very beginning of my relationship with my now-fiance went like this:

    We hung out together with friends. He got my number. He texted to ask if I wanted to go to a movie with a group of people. I went. I texted him when I got home that night. He texted me back the next afternoon. We met at a bar with friends. I went home, had dinner, etc. We texted. He met me and my roommates at a bar that night. I texted him when I got home. We texted a little through the next day, and then he called me that evening.

    I guess it sounds a little superficial when you describe it like that, but – for us – it was a perfect way for a couple of shy, nervous acquaintances (we’d known each other for a few years and had mutual friends) to communicate when we might not have had the guts to make a phone call. (Of course, that’s probably culturally conditioned to some extent. 30 years ago, it would have been tough to make that phone call, but you had no other options, besides doing nothing, so you just jumped in. Now a phone call seems like a bigger step because there’s texting as an alternative.)

    Now that we’re engaged and currently long-distance for a few months, we communicate in every possible way – e-mail, phone, IM, text, and we plan to write letters, as well, although I’m not sure we’ll be able to keep it up.

  • Kim

    I met my husband online 9 years ago through our church’s single’s website. After introducing ourselves through email, we spent the next 8 months communicating through email and ICQ, which was sort of like texting, but we could write as much as we wanted and knew when the other person was typing.

    I really enjoyed getting to know him that way. I think texting may lack the immediacy of a conversation because you do it between other tasks and sometimes have to leave people hanging (or be the one waiting for an answer that might show up hours later).

    Texting isn’t as easy as typing, so response time is increased just because it takes longer to type on a phone. I think that texting might be exciting in the beginning of a relationship when flirting is all that is going on, but frustrating when important discussions arise later on. Maybe sending emails using your phone instead of texts would be best during the later stages of a relationship. Response time on emails is expected to be a lot longer, as more can be said.

    When my husband and I are apart, we often communicate through email instead of a phone call so we make sure not to leave out anything we want to say.

  • Fred

    Loved it!

  • Tanya

    This is not about romantic love, but the other day I received a text asking me to lend $900. I thought it was a crazy person or a joke, but I got curious and thought it might be my little sister. When I found out it was in fact her, the mix of feelings was quite overwhelming. I really didn’t want to answer, but felt bed about not helping her. and it was not so much about the money, but about getting a text message when a phone call would have been more appropriate.

  • joe

    Gr8 piece. Thx 4 ur nsite. :)

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