Texting tribulations

Off the Beat

Melissa Wen_online

When my new friend and freshman year floormate texted me a tongue-in-cheek, “You replied too soon” to a message I took an hour to respond to, I genuinely believed him.

Sitting alone outside the Starbucks on Oxford Street, sipping coffee cautiously and lowering my eyes at every glimpse of a passing stranger, I resolved to practice better timing. Hours passed, and I sent nothing. I was 17 years old at the time and had only recently overcome a crippling fear of saying ‘hi’ to people.

Three years later, I can promise potential friends and employers that my social skills have, on the whole, improved. But I still hate so many things about texting.

I hate that I’ve so frequently lied about having not seen a text that I can’t believe anyone who uses the same excuse.

I hate strings of back-and-forth texts that crawl on for days, lingering on inane details because each texter can commit to neither killing the conversation nor starting a new one.

I hate that I rewrite messages to make them look shorter. I hate that I proofread every texted thought. I hate that I keep my own read receipts turned off and will actively wait for someone else’s to hurt my feelings.

On some level, it’s weird to have so many complaints about a technology with the literal purpose of making speaking to others more convenient.

The possibility of texting keeps us tantalizingly reachable. We dash off messages where other communicative mediums fail — under desks during lecture, in the grocery checkout line, beside a sleeping roommate. Neither distance nor time of day nor an important business meeting can keep us (in theory) from connecting whenever we want.

So when the reality of texting as a connective means so often falls short of its possibility, how do I make sense of the gap?

It takes one minute to get in touch with an old friend, but I hold off for months because I can’t think of the right opener. It takes one minute to say something back, but I’d rather keep someone waiting than risk being the only one who waits. It takes one minute to reschedule a coffee date and so I do, whenever it suits my convenience.

The imposition of such contrivances on an otherwise instantaneous mode of communication shines a particularly harsh light on the forces driving my speech: paralyzing insecurity, fear of vulnerability, casual selfishness. Presented with such a low threshold for pursuing togetherness, I face more starkly than ever the extent to which I keep others at bay by my own volition.

In this way, the existence of electronic messaging also exacerbates a particular anxiety in the experience of aloneness. Surrounded by tools that break down all practical barriers of communication, everyone else seems deceptively close.

At the same time, 172 years after the first telegraph message’s delivery, the difficulty of trying to know another person remains painfully, unavoidably human. As a result, even as the same psychological forces continue to keep people apart, being alone feels more and more like it should not be as inevitable as it is.

This idea extends to virtual forms of communication beyond texting as well. For instance, there’s a line in Drake’s “Jungle” that sticks out to me as anachronistic: “Call your number and it’s out of service.” Nowadays, losing someone’s number hardly equates to losing all modes of contact. We can find someone on social media or the internet at large with merely a name.

And now, I know, I’m echoing an oft-lamented claim about the modern condition — our dilemma of feeling incessantly, liberatingly connected and at the same time more alone than any of our predecessors.

Then again, maybe my anxieties around texting don’t always require such complicated parsing out. Maybe they continue to largely stem from my misguided perceptions about other people’s — like that friend from freshman year’s — expectations. Set three years after the first, here’s another anecdote about texting.

I spent this summer in the rented bedroom of a stranger’s house in North Hollywood, the longest time I can remember being away from the Bay Area. A week in, all I wanted was Berkeley. But after a couple months of taking the same two streets to work every afternoon and buying frozen lasagna at the same grocery store every weekend, I half-wanted to stay.

In the week between leaving southern California and returning to school I felt oddly unmoored, in limbo between two places where I wished I could be. The event that one morning suddenly returned my sense of groundedness was a one-line text from a friend in Berkeley saying that she missed me.

Who knows if my friend had spent five minutes crafting the perfect expression of affection or had texted me as a drunken afterthought? Either way, she’d said something I was aching to hear. If I have learned any profound fact about human attachments by the trials of modern communication, maybe it’s this: Sometimes it’s okay to just say something, and let that be enough.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion columnists have been selected.

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