The first letter of a text or instant message is the most important. Never mind the actual meaning of the words it introduces; the mere keystroke is a starter pistol. Once you’re off, you need to complete your message quickly. That’s because most chat clients let you know when your partner is typing a message. And the longer this message takes to type, the more you start to worry: Is it going to be confrontational, confessional, or emotionally challenging in some other way?
Awkward silence has an analogue online, thanks to the typing alerts that linguists call “awareness indicators.” On Google Talk or Gchat, a prompt says “Ben is typing…”; on Apple’s iChat a plain ellipsis signifies the same. These features are not as disposable as they may seem. One of the Internet's most remarkable effects on language is the jury-rigging of writing for conversation. In lieu of facial expressions, we type emoticons and emoji; for tone and inflection, we make novel use of punctuation. The typing awareness indicator is another adaptation: a way to pace a written conversation. But it can do more than just indicate awareness. It can induce anxiety, too.
“I’ve been in a few situations where I'm chatting with someone and I start typing a reply, but then stop before I'm finished with the reply,” Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, wrote me by email:
Maybe I'm rethinking what I'm writing before hitting "send", or maybe I'm temporarily pulled away by something else like a phone call. But I'm aware that the person on the other end may have *seen* me start typing and then stop—so I'm aware they may be wondering exactly what's going on in my head. I've been in the other situation, too, wondering: Hmmm, why did they start typing and then stop? Obviously, most of the time this isn't an issue, but if you're involved in a sensitive or emotionally charged conversation, these questions of pausing can become emotionally charged themselves!
One of writing’s traditional advantages over speech is the time it affords you to collect your thoughts. This time empowers you to calculate your words’ effects on their reader. Rather than blurting out “YOU’RE SO HOT,” you pen a pleasing phrase: “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”
Text and instant messages, however, are eroding this advantage. We don’t correspond over text and instant messages, like we do in letters; we chat in quick informal exchanges, like we do face-to-face. And one of the underpinnings of spoken conversation is what's known in linguistics as turn-taking. “We need some way of determining when someone else's turn is over and ours can begin,” says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of You Just Don't Understand. “In speaking, we sense whether others are done—their voices trail off, their intonation goes down, they seem to have finished making a point, they leave a pause to let us know they're finished.”
It’s not as simple as it sounds. Tannen’s research has shown that conversational turn-taking actually creates a lot of social friction. Certain cultures—I’ll let you guess which ones—have developed what she calls a “high-involvement style,” where interruption is valued as a sign of engagement. Others have a “high-considerateness style” where it’s seen as polite to wait your turn. When the styles clash, each party tends to think the other is being rude. (OK, if you are still wondering which cultures use the different styles, here’s a clue.)
Text and instant message conversations aren’t as fraught, since both parties can type at the same time without impinging on each other. “You don't need the other person to give you the floor,” Tannen says. But the physical separation of the parties creates new problems. It’s hard to know when to change the subject if you’re unsure whether the other person is still engaged with the one at hand. And you can’t always tell whether someone has completed her story or is only pausing.
The typing awareness indicator is directed at these confusions. It helps written exchanges take on the tempo of spoken conversation by facilitating turn-taking—an important innovation when you consider that young people prefer to stay in touch by text than phone call. They can also be used for effect and emphasis. “The thing that gets me is the temporal aspect of it,” says Keith Houston, author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. “I’ve typed something, I’ve hit return. I’m going to wait for awhile and then I type something else. I think they correspond to the pauses I’d make if I were speaking.”
But knowing when your partner is typing can also have the unsettling effect that Thompson described: It makes visible the care with which we pick our words. And the more visible this care becomes, the more the reader distrusts the message. Conversation is supposed to feel natural, after all. The quip is less funny if it’s not offhanded. Flirtation is not so flattering if it appears to require labor. And the apology can seem less heartfelt when you know it’s been self-lawyered.
It’s also just the case that the longer a response the take, the more we expect that it will somehow disappoint us. “In speech, it’s well known that if you say something and I respond to it, and my response is not going to be what you want to hear then it’s going to take me longer to answer than if I was just going to say yes,” says Susan Herring, a professor of linguistics and information science at Indiana University.
A similar rule seems to apply in text and online chat, at least once you know the other person has started typing. Recently, I reconnected on Gchat with a friend with whom I had been carelessly out of touch. As I began typing my final note, he remarked that it was taking me a long time—which distracted me and slowed me down even further. “Oh god… I’m going to get a long one,” he wrote. I hesitated once again. “It’s coming,” he typed. All I was trying to say, though, was “okay good, I’ll plan on sunday! we can figure out later.” When I finally sent the message, my friend wrote “all that typing for that!?!?!”
Such needless anxiety may just be a necessary tradeoff for the convenience of digital written conversations. If we eliminated the typing awareness indicator, we would struggle with online conversational turn-taking. And attempts to improve the indicator have fallen flat. Real-time typing, which lets you see the other person’s message as he composes it, keystroke by keystroke, has been unpopular; Google tried to introduce it a few years ago in Google Wave, but many people had the experience of Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who wrote it “made me too self-conscious to get my thoughts across.”
The most common-sense workaround, of course, is to prepare your thoughts mentally before you begin typing them. That sounds easy enough, but some of us actually use writing as a way of working out our thoughts, not simply recording them after they’re fully formed. If nothing else, then, Google might give its users an alternative: Instead of “Ben is typing…” how about “Ben is thinking…”?
Ben Crair is a story editor at The New Republic. Follow him @bencrair.