“MERRY CHRISTMAS.” This was the first text message ever sent, from engineer Neil Papworth to his colleague Richard Jarvis in December 1992. Now, an estimated 23bn texts are sent worldwide every day.
Like Papworth, I also wished a bunch of my friends and family a merry Christmas over text last December. But, unlike Papworth, I would never dream of sending the angry, all-caps words “MERRY CHRISTMAS” or “Merry Christmas.” with a pointed full stop at the end of the message. Instead, I went for variations of “merry christmas!!!!” and “merry christmas xxx”.
The social codes of texting have changed dramatically since 1992. Just opening a conversation is a minefield—a light-hearted “hiii babe” is worlds apart from a curt “hey.” And if someone texts me “Hi Serena,” with my name in the message? I immediately panic and start racking my brain for reasons why the sender might be annoyed with me.
Voice notes—short audio files which you can send over iMessage, Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp—have also changed the game. WhatsApp introduced them in 2013, and now nearly 200m are sent every month. They’re like Marmite: most people either love them or hate them.
Personally, I love them, and will quite happily prattle on about the minutiae of my day—what I had for lunch, the nice dog I saw, whether I should go to Sainsbury’s later—and send it over to a friend. But equally, I’ve been guilty of seeing my best friend send me five voice notes in a row, thinking “I’ll listen to that later,” and then realising six days later that I never responded. And when I do eventually listen, I’ll inevitably be roped into listening to 30 seconds of “yeah… so like, what happened is… he was like… wait, let me start again.”
There are some advantages to young people being hyperconscious of tone of voice over text
It’s ironic. Texting was meant to make communication easier, but it can be much harder to discern someone’s tone over text, especially with inflections as subtle as sarcasm.
It’s not as straightforward as tacking a crying-laughing-face emoji onto the end of a message either—sorry, but you are officially Old if you unironically use emojis. Your options are “lol” (which can sometimes come across as quite passive aggressive), “haha” (again, this sounds too abrupt), or, my personal favourite, “lmao” (which translates as a hyperbolic but less blunt “laughing my ass off,” for those who didn’t know). That said—“loool” or “hahahaha” are also good options.
Complicated? Definitely. But there are some advantages to young people being hyperconscious of tone of voice over text—I know, for example, that Royal Mail would never text me “your order has been SHIPPED pls Click Here for more information,” but a scammer would.
Some people also use “tone indicators” online, which are paralinguistic signifiers to help clarify what a person’s tone is—for example “/j” at the end of a sentence means the author is joking. For people who struggle with non-verbal cues in everyday conversation, communicating like this online can make life considerably easier.
It’s also just helpful to have all these different ways to express yourself. I’m not the loudest or most verbose person in real life, but behind a screen with a keyboard at my fingertips I often find it easier to get my point across.
Voice notes, too, can be a lifesaver if you’ve got a lot to say. Nobody wants to type out (or read) a potted novel recounting the ugly details of your recent breakup or your latest workplace drama. With a voice note, you can just hit “record” and let the words flow out.
Why don’t we just pick up the phone? Well, as any 20-something knows, it’s almost impossible to find a time when you and a friend are both free for the same half an hour—voice notes have the intimacy of a phone call without the need for both people to be available at the same time. In any case, most of Gen Z are chronically afraid of phone calls anyway—I think if one of my friends called me totally out of the blue I’d assume something dreadful had happened.
Of course, nothing tops speaking to your friends and family face-to-face. Nothing beats seeing their eyes sparkle as they tell you about a great first date or their smile as you tell them about your promotion at work. But with my loved ones dotted about the country, most of the time, a text or a voice note has to suffice. And I’m fine with that—so long as no one ever replies to me with just a “K.”