In Defense of Texting

In these complicated times, texting helps keep loneliness at bay.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

Becca Tapert/Unsplash
Source: Becca Tapert/Unsplash

How’s everybody doing out there, six months into the pandemic? Is it still an introvert’s dream for you? I’m not being snotty; it’s a genuine question. I’m sure some introverts are still loving it while others are starting to recognize the limits of their introversion.

And of course, the pandemic has touched many people intimately—my grief groups are full of people who lost loved ones to COVID-19. If you are among the bereaved, I send heartfelt condolences. Though my loss was not COVID-related, I am grieving too, and it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

All this is a roundabout way to get to the topic on my mind right now: texting.

I love texting. Possibly to a fault. I have friends with whom I text on and off all day, every day. I have friends who pop up now and then, delightfully. And while I have (finally) come to recognize when an old-fashioned phone call is most efficient (i.e. making complicated plans), I take care of as much personal business as I can via text.

And now, in the pandemic and in grief, texting has become a kind of lifeline for me. Friends check in on me. I check in on them. We joke around. We talk about dinner. We commiserate (and get competitive) over the Spelling Bee game in the New York Times. We kvetch. We cheer each other on. One friend and I motivate each other to meditate daily (ideally) via text.

To be sure, I much prefer face-to-face interaction. Fortunately, because I have a spacious backyard, I have been able to do plenty of low-risk socially distant visiting. But those visits eventually end, friends drive off, and then I am alone with my grief again. Sometimes that feels good, of course. I am an introvert. But other times, it feels lonely.

And then my phone chimes and there’s a friend. I see her in my mind’s eye as I read her missive and thumb in a response. And while it’s not as much fun as sitting across a table from each other with margaritas, exchanging a few texts with a friend sure helps keep feelings of isolation at bay. Yes, I do phone and video calls too, but those are less spontaneous. Texts are little dings of connection all day long.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of research on texting and loneliness or texting and friendship; much of what I found is about texting and romantic relationships. And, like much research, it’s not about old people like me. Because a great deal of research is done at universities, much of it uses undergrads as subjects. I doubt I have a lot in common with today’s undergrads, who, among other things, have grown up with texting. They don’t know what it’s like to not be able to text.

For me, this new mode of communication is delightfully positioned in a sweet spot between the telephone and email. It allows me to control my space. Yeah, sometimes I don’t respond to texts right away; I’m still introverty that way. Some–cartoons and memes, for example—don’t seem to require a response; they’re just someone saying, “Saw this, thought of you, here’s a giggle.” Sometimes, especially if I’m working, I get stressed if a lot of texts come in. The little bell can be a jingle of joy or an irritating summons, depending on my mood at the time. Still, that’s just me. Even as I’m sometimes irritated, I am also always grateful. It feels good to know someone is thinking about me. 

And not all my texts are memes and chitchat. I have one friend who lost her husband shortly after I lost mine, and we are a two-person text support group. My text conversations with her often go deep. We were friendly but not close friends before this, but grief and texting (and occasional visits) have taken our friendship to a new, deeper level. When I feel myself spiraling into a bad/sad place, I know can text a few words to this friend and get a dose of understanding and commiseration that few others can provide.

This would suggest the credibility of one master’s thesis I found about texting and intimacy, in which the author writes, “Results from this study suggest that even though in-person conversation is generally better for social bonding than texting, having an intimate conversation over text promotes social bonding to a greater extent than small-talk over text.”

So, no surprise, texted chitchat is no more conducive to intimacy than face-to-face chitchat is. I am an advocate for the social lubrication chitchat provides, and so while I don’t actually enjoy it, I do it. And when I’m feeling lonely, even a trivial, chit-chatty text can be cheering. But it is interesting to note that even via text, deep conversation can nurture deeper friendships. 

I used to have a lot of deep conversations via email. That rarely happens anymore. Now it’s all text. In a way, texting has more in common with conversation than email does, because it’s little back-and-forths. It moves faster, it's less carefully considered. (For better or worse sometimes.) It lacks body language, of course, but I’m not above using emojis to express what body language might otherwise.

Texting and videoconferencing have been indispensable to me during these very weird times. While they don’t come close to making up for all we are missing, I think they are making this terrible time more bearable, and I am thankful for them.

What about you?