Language in the Age of Context Collapse

My phone vibrates. I look down. It’s a message from my girlfriend. I just told her that I had to go for a couple of hours.

“Okay.”

What? What does that even mean?

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

Wait, is she upset? Is she trying to communicate to me that she’s not pleased? Is she being terse because she’s angry? Or is she sad?

“Are you upset?”

“No.”

Okay, come on. She’s definitely upset. She has to be. That’s such an upset response.

“You sure?”

“Damian, I’m not upset.”

Now she’s really upset, because I’ve been asking her about it.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to make you upset by asking about it.”

“It’s okay.”

She’s so upset.

This is a completely fictional conversation based loosely on conversations I’ve had with my girlfriend in the past several years. I use it here to illustrate a concept that has long fascinated me: a societal inability to communicate adequately thanks to the context collapse ushered in by the rise of the Internet and digital forms of communication that eschew facial and body expression, as well as tone of voice — among many other factors.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I am continually flummoxed in text conversations with my girlfriend and with others. I just can’t tell whether the person with whom I’m communicating is happy, sad, angry, tired, nervous or any other emotion that was breezed over by Inside Out — A perfectly mediocre movie that should be appreciated by children and recognized as slight by adults, for the record. You can’t justify basing a whole movie on a child’s decision to take a bus, even if there’s one good tearjerking scene.

But enough of that. I know for a fact that there are at least five other people in this world who feel the same way I do about communicating via text, and our opinion, generally, is the same: when it comes to understanding how someone else is feeling, text messages, iMessage and any other messenger quite frankly suck. There’s no way around it, and I don’t feel like wording it any more artfully or intellectually. iMessage sucks.

I was driving with my friend a few months ago when his girlfriend texted him. As it turns out, seeing that this is the second column that I’ve written that’s related in some way to his correspondence with his girlfriend over iMessage, I learn a hell of a lot from their conversations. And I don’t mean that in a weird, nosy way.

I forget what exactly I had to text her — he won’t text and drive, as I think I mentioned in our last discussion of their texting habits — but it went something like this:

Me: “Oh, hey, (Insert girlfriend’s name here, which I’m not disclosing just for the sake of privacy) just texted you.”

My friend: “What did she say?”

Me: “She said, ‘I’m running to the store. Do you need me to get anything special?’”

Him: “Tell her, ‘Get Necco wafers please!’”

(For the record, find me a person who likes Necco wafers and I’ll introduce you to a still-very-much-alive Andy Kaufman.)

“Okay, so ‘Get Necco wafers please, exclamation point?’”

“Three exclamation points.”

“Oh, okay, three. Sent.”

“Thanks!”

“She just texted back. She said, ‘Anything else?’”

“Tell her, ‘That’s it! Thanks!’”

“Okay, so ‘That’s it.’ How many exclamation points after that?”

“Two!”

“Okay, ‘That’s it, two exclamation points. Thanks,’ and how many exclamation points?”

“Three! No, four!”

“Okay, so ‘That’s it, two exclamation points. Thanks, four exclamation points.’”

“Anything else?”

“Add a smiley face emoji at the end.”

It sounds so stupid in this context, but it’s absolutely true. This is how we have to think whenever we want to communicate via iMessage, or at least it’s the extent to which I wrack my brain during such correspondence. It sounds pathetic, but it’s how we interact in these faceless forums. My friend’s use of exclamation points mirrors mine — in one of many bizarre, disturbing similarities that we both sometimes try to ignore and/or forget — so I trust that I can accurately and honestly decipher his “code” of sorts when communicating by text.

Our bastardized, digitized language is integrating its way into the rest of our language

You seldom send a sentence ending with a period. A period always sounds angry. Ben Crair wrote a fascinating piece in the New Republic, which I read last year and which probably inspired me to write this continuation of his analysis, about the same general topic.

“Say you find yourself limping to the finish of a wearing workday,” Crair writes. “You text your girlfriend: ‘I know we made a reservation for your bday tonight but wouldn’t it be more romantic if we ate in instead?’ If she replies,

‘we could do that’

Then you can ring up Papa John’s and order something special. But if she replies,

‘we could do that.’

Then you should probably drink a cup of coffee: You’re either going out or you’re eating Papa John’s alone.”

Crair is right, even though nobody in their right mind would order Papa John’s for their significant other’s birthday.

So, as the texting code goes, you try to avoid the period. Then comes the exclamation point, which can be used in a number of different ways. One exclamation point is pretty standard. Since you have to prove that every single text you send is positive, happy and generally excited, most sentences end with at least one exclamation point, but the most common actually seems to be two exclamation points. Two exclamation points suggest that you’re even more positive, happy and excited than you would be if you used just one. Three is special. If you use three exclamation points, then the recipient should feel pretty good. That means you’re really exuberant about whatever it is you’re saying. If you use any more, sometimes it helps, but I find sometimes it just leads to exclamation point inflation. The more exclamation points you use (after three, of course), the less each one is worth.

Then you have question marks, which aren’t nearly as interesting. You can use one or two interchangeably, and it will mean generally the same thing. But use three, and we’re talking about a BIG question.

“Repairs cost how much???”

“You’re leaving me???”

“Why do I use so many question marks???”

As with exclamation points, watch your use of question marks. Let’s not get excessive about this.

But what about the lack of any punctuation whatsoever? What does that mean? What’s the difference between “I’m leaving now” and “I’m leaving now.”? Let me ask you. How do you feel when you read these? Which makes you feel better?

“I have to go”

“I have to go.”

“Sorry about last night”

“Sorry about last night.”

“I hope so”

“I hope so.”

Certainly context makes a difference, but the period-less sentence, seeming more passive and therefore less hostile, always seems preferable. If I tell my girlfriend I’ll be home by 8 and she responds, “I hope so” without any punctuation, I feel a lot better than I would if she said “I hope so.” Because in the latter case, I better move like I’m being chased by a masked serial killer wielding a chainsaw.

Which reminds me, I know that Halloween is over, but AMC did something really stupid during its yearly “Fear Fest.” It spent most of its time showing movies from the Halloween series. Which is fine and all, except that there is one good Halloween and there are seven awful ones (and two awful entries in a rebooted series). So anyone who tuned in to watch an all-day marathon was bombarded with 22 hours of horrible crimes against cinema and two hours of the only movie that should have been shown. And as a result, I spent the afternoon of the day before Halloween watching Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is honestly such a travesty that every single human on earth should watch it. It’s the one movie that doesn’t line up with the rest of the series in any way (Michael Myers doesn’t appear), and the plot, basically, is that a company controlled by robots is producing deadly Halloween masks containing pieces of Stonehenge, which of course has the power to make children’s faces melt. Because science.

But anyway… Back to the topic at hand. Why does any of this matter? Because we’ve not only bastardized the language with our excessive use of punctuation and the subsequent need to take solace in the dearth of any punctuation at all, but we’ve gone further.

Did you see the word that was voted word of the year by Oxford Dictionary? I can’t even type it here, because it’s not a word. It’s the “face with tears of joy” emoji. And I’m sorry, but that’s completely inane. What does it mean that an established dictionary has voted that a pictograph is not only a word, but the word of the year?

I can’t help but wonder whether we’ve become so accustomed to this brave new world of digital communication that we hope we can use images of crying, laughing faces to compensate for all of the context that has collapsed around us, rather than trying to pick up the pieces and revert to something more personal and less confusing.

And the problem is bigger, because all of a sudden, as was most likely inevitable all along, our bastardized, digitized language is integrating its way into the rest of our language, in any number of contexts. Suddenly, context collapses not just online, but all around us. Suddenly, the old forms of communication are eschewed and our own presence replaced with that of an emoji. And why not? If I can’t tell you I mean to be smiling while I type “Okay,” then why not add a smiling emoji to do it for me?

But what happens when we take this too far? What happens when an emoji, a simple means of making a confusing and impersonal means of communication less confusing and supposedly more personal, becomes more than that? What happens when a dictionary rules that it’s a word? What happens when the context in which we use it changes? What happens when these poor substitutes for a personalized, proper, face-to-face, contextualized form of communication — or even for a more proper form of written communication — begin to predominate the social landscape???

I chose to end that with three question marks. Because, make no mistake, it’s a BIG question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *