"I was talking to my friend about that last week," a 20-something client explained to me in a recent session, following up on a previous discussion we had about her relationship anxiety.
"What did she say?" I asked.
"She told me that she's struggling with the same thing. We actually had a really good talk about it."
"I'm so glad you reached out to her, and that you're taking the time to have conversations about these issues," I responded, knowing how isolated this particular client has been, and how isolation only exacerbates the sense that we're the only ones dealing with any particular issues. "I hope you give her a call more regularly."
"Oh," she stuttered, "Um, it wasn't a phone call. We were talking ... over text."
I paused for a moment. I smiled gently and said, "Texting isn't talking." When I said this, I knew I was speaking to an entire generation.
Too many of us assume that texting is talking. But it isn't. Texting is texting. It's a truncated form of communication that, I believe, is best used to communicate simple things like, "Can you pick up some milk?" or "What time are you planning on arriving?"
Yet an entire sector of our population now uses texting to have long conversations about our innermost thoughts and feelings. Couples fight or pour out their love over text. Friends banter and process emotions over text. New dating couples get to know each other over text. We all do it, and we do it a lot.
All-too-often I hear about conversations gone awry over text, or people struggling with social isolation who think that texting will connect them to others in a meaningful way. And if you're just getting to know someone — like a new potential partner or a friend — you can only go so far over text. It may feel safer to bring up a difficult topic from behind the safety of the texting screen, but real intimacy will not bloom this way.
The more difficult the topic or the less you know the person, the more essential it is that we see the person's face, hear the nuances of speech, the tone in their voice, the lilt of their mouth, the welling up in their eyes. Texting, like email, flattens everything else until it becomes nearly impossible to flesh out the multiple layers of meaning that are communicated beyond the level of a black-and-white word.
It's the great irony of this age: we have mind-blowing ways of communicating with others, and yet we're increasingly more isolated. When face-to-face communication isn't possible, the connection of voice or face through phone or Skype is a wonderful option. But to think that texting is a substitute for actual conversation is massive thinking error that results in frustration, disconnection, and more isolation.
If you're addicted to texting, try these simple steps for connecting by phone or in person instead:
1. Save "real talk" for the phone or in person conversations.
If someone tries to engage in a real conversation with you over text — like your partner or a friend expressing upset — politely respond with, "Please not over text. When would be a good time to connect by phone or get together?"
2. If you're dating someone new and they insist on getting to know you over text, take the reins and give them a call instead.
If you have their text number, then you have their phone number, plain and simple. And remember: you don't have to wait for them to call you!
3. Don't respond to every text you receive (or at least not immediately).
Because you don't have to. Set boundaries that work for you. When you don't respond, or at least not immediately and/or constantly, you send people the message that texting isn't your preferred method of communication.
Texting isn't talking. Texting is texting. Call it what it is and then ask yourself if it's serving your aim at developing closeness, skillful communication, and deep connection in your life. Because, in the end, that's what we're all longing to feel.