How to Decipher Text Messages

By Tracey Dowdy

Recently, Dr. Tchiki Davis wrote an excellent article to help answer a question we’ve all asked ourselves at one time or another after reading a text; “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I’m not talking about decoding an acronym like “btw” or “ttyl,” I’m talking about deciphering the emotion behind a text. Personally, I’ve wished for years developers would create a universal sarcasm font – someone get on that – but in the meantime, we have to depend on context clues, like the number of exclamation points or any emoji’s that have been included. But, what happens if it’s just text – no punctuation or smiling faces? Dr. Davis offers these helpful tips for interpreting text messages.

Assume good intentions. Sometimes, when the meaning is unclear, we assume the worst. Because we live in a world where we feel busier than ever but are somehow more accessible than in the past, a quick, “Be there ASAP,” or an “OK,” can seem abrupt or even passive aggressive. Don’t be tempted to assume either of these. Instead, suggests Dr. Davis, “If the text doesn’t say, ‘I’m angry,’ then don’t assume that the texter is angry. We are better off reading texts with the assumption that the texter has good intentions.”

Cultivate awareness of unconsciousbiases. In her research, Dr. Davis has taught teams of “emotion coders.” Through her work, she has enabled individuals on these teams to become self-aware and recognize personal bias. No matter how objective we try to be, like it or not, we bring our emotional baggage and experience into our interactions with others. By being conscious of your own bias, you can save yourself the misery of misinterpreting an innocent message.

Explore the emotional undertones of the words themselves. Some words have clear emotional connotations – love, hate, cute, precious, disgusting, wretched – you know the emotion behind each of these words. However, if emotionally weighted words from opposite ends of the spectrum are combined in a single sentence, using the “bag of words” method may help uncover the meaning. Simply examine each of the words individually and weigh the number of positive emotive words against the number of negative to uncover the primary emotion being expressed.

Don’t assume you know how a person feels. “The emotions that emerge in a given context are highly dependent on our unique perspectives and experiences; this makes it very difficult for us to guess how someone else is feeling,” says Dr. Davis. Think of it this way. My brother-in-law Ken runs marathons. He’s incredibly fit and truly enjoys running. I, on the other hand, only work out so I can run faster than the zombies when the apocalypse hit. I don’t enjoy the experience at all. For him, exercise releases endorphins – for me, my inner honey badger. Davis cautions, “Always ask yourself: are you drawing conclusions based on emotional information provided by the other person or are you making assumptions based solely on how you would feel in the same situation?”

Explore your theory of emotion. We all have ideas of where our feelings originate from and how connected they are to each other. For example, anger is generally the response to three perceptions: fear, frustration, or hurt. Understanding this, we can see that anger is rarely a singular emotion. If in the text you recognize someone is angry, they’re likely also experiencing these other emotions as well, which can help you form your response.

Seek out more information. If all else fails, you’ve searched for context clues, used the “bag of words” method, examined your personal bias and yet you’re still not sure of the meaning, do yourself a favor and ask for clarification. Perhaps the text was abrupt because the sender was about to lose service or they’re stepping in to a meeting. Or maybe, the message is short because they’re stressed for reasons completely unrelated to you and your relationship. Says Dr. Davis, “The bottom line is that you should try to avoid guessing. You need to ask questions, be empathetic, and try to see the world through the other person’s point of view.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


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