herald

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Why some women just can't read between the text message lines

Decoding messages from s suitor is a feminine obsession, but gaffes arise from the ways men and women approach texting

Your knees are weak, your heart is fluttering and your vision is rose-tinted. Fancying somebody is the best -- and worst -- feeling in the world. Fledgling romances, although exciting, are fraught with anxiety and confusion.

Text replies seem to take forever when your heart is on the line. Will he text? Should I text him? I sent the last text so I can't send another one . . .

You would imagine that the turmoil would subside when the text message alert finally sounds. On the contrary -- that's when it heightens. This isn't just a text message. It's a glimpse of his personality, a sense of his humour and -- crucially -- a vital clue as to where his affections may lie.

Call it crazy (because it actually is), but the analysing of text messages is a characteristically female sport. Every single syllable is carefully deconstructed. Spelling mistakes are noted. Response times are logged.

I am over-analytic to the point of being borderline psychotic, so I am often drafted in to decipher the SMS missives my friends receive.

"But what does it actually mean," they implore, as though they have just received a sequence of ancient hieroglyphics.

The correct answer, of course, is that "Would u like to go 4 a drink?" means just that. Only, I'm a woman, and we all know that it means so, so much more.

Alas, down the rabbit hole we go . . .

"One sentence?! That's it? What, is he trying to prove that he has better things to be doing? He obviously has another one on the go!"

"Excessive use of exclamation marks. What's he trying to imply?"

"XXX? THREE kisses? Is that better than one? Or is it too many?"

"Do you think he's into me?" they ask.

Again, the rational answer is that there is no way of telling when my only knowledge of the gentleman is the 40 or so words before me.

But sanity takes a backseat in the first flushes of love, and I am more than happy to help the lovesick build castles in the sky.

"Well, judging by his witty tone, judicious use of colloquialisms and impeccable grammar, I'd say yes. Infatuated, in fact."

I hasten to add that this is even before the actual words are taken into account. They say textese signalled the death of the English language. I'd be inclined to agree, not because phrases have been reduced to acronyms and words have been whittled to single letters, but because we now go searching for the subtext in the most simple of statements.

A friend recently received a text message from a romantic interest which read: "Working out. Call you later."

To the rational minded person, that means he's in the gym. She deducted that he was deep in thought about whether he wanted to continue with the relationship.

Another assumed the sign-off "take care" indicated that their brief courtship had reached its endpoint. I've seen the most self-assured women reduced to nervous schoolgirls as they wait for their phones to beep. Lust, hope and fear of rejection collide and they are left hanging on every word that is pinged their way. Hence statements seem loaded and even the most direct questions are considered ambiguous.

Take "What u doing tonite?" The honest answer is: "Sitting here waiting for you to text. Hope fading. Mind unravelling."

But the path to true love is rarely paved with complete honesty.

Instead, this text will be passed by at least one female friend to determine what it actually means before any response is sent. You'd have a better chance cracking Morse Code. Is it just casual conversation? Is it a request to do something?

Should you reply that you are doing something terribly exciting so that he gets the impression that you are an independent woman with a hectic social life, or does that scupper the chances of an actual date being offered? Should an actual date be offered, the reply will no doubt go through more edits than a Hemingway novel.

I fondly remember being one of four women who were carefully scripting the reply to an SMS date offer sent to our friend. "I would love to . . ."

"No -- too desperate. Gives the impression that you're already in love with him."

"Any night suits."

"God no -- that sounds pathetic."

Some 20 minutes later, a suitably nonchalant reply had been penned thanks to the exhaustive efforts of a quartet of women.

How easy it must have been in the days of love letters, when hearts were heaved into mouths with no fear of seeming mawkish. Fanny Brawne, the muse and lover of John Keats, had little second guessing to do when the letters from her beloved opened with sentiments such as: "You fear, sometimes, I do not love you so much as you wish? My dear girl, I love you ever and ever and without reserve."

Even so, I would imagine her female friends enjoyed reading these missives as much as she did. Women have always taken a vicarious pleasure in each other's fledgling relationships. It's a bonding ritual of the sisterhood.

"He loves me . . . He loves me not . . ."

But why do we spend so much time interpreting what should be straightforward?

According to researchers, it's because men and women text differently. They noted that women write long and flowery messages while men's tend to be short and succinct.

A study by Susan Herring and Asta Zelenkauskaite found that women "tend to push their messages closest to the 160-character-count limit, use more abbreviations and insertions". Men are more likely to express just one idea, whereas women "tend to cram three or four disparate ideas into their message".

They concluded that women used more expressive text language to show a "lively and charming personality and a childlike playfulness, both qualities considered attractive in females".

Conversely, men use more straightforward language that "represents masculine accomplishment within the dominant social order".

If the sexes have different prerogatives when they text, no wonder wires get crossed along the way.

Other researchers blame 'egocentrism', the psychological phenomenon whereby people find it difficult detaching themselves from their own perspectives. No wonder we need to call in our friends to decode romantic text messages.

This wouldn't be the case if people picked up the phone to one another, but texting has become the preferred method of communication, particularly in the dating arena.

Instead, we have acronyms such as "ROFL" and little smiley faces to tell us if we've warmed someone's affections. And even then it's open to interpretation . . .

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