The Subtext of Text

The other day I got an email from a friend, telling me she would be in Amsterdam next month for work, and would it be okay to come and hang out a few days?

Sure, I immediately replied, no problem.

The next morning I got an email from the same friend, questioning my enthusiasm for the impending visit because I didn’t use any exclamation marks in my reply.  She then told me that if there was some kind of problem on my end, if I didn’t really want her to visit, she would just stay in a hotel.

I immediately replied to my friend, offering up justification for my error in syntax.  I was on the last leg of a 10 day business trip and exhausted, but believe me, despite my breach of appropriate exclamating, I was truly looking forward to seeing her.  

After I hit the send button, I realized that I had just offered up an apology for punctuation.


This is where the Internet and social media has brought us.  We are so busy living life in threads-of-140-characters-or-less and those characters have oodles of subtext in them, that even punctuation is up for interpretation.

Social media has offered us the chance to connect with people, people whom, without social media, we would never be in contact with, or wouldn’t even know in some cases.  That’s a great and wonderful thing.  I absolutely love that I have been able to reconnect with high school and college friends, former colleagues, childhood friends.  Social media has even brought new friends into my life,  people I don’t know IRL or haven’t seen in a long time, but with whom I have a very definite connection, a closeness that I never would have found without social media.

The downside is that a large chunk of our communications with others are done via social media or text message.  There is no tone of voice, there is no context.  

We have moved into a society that spends an inordinate amount of time reading into things, rather than just reading them.  We disagree more easily than we would if we had to sit face to face and make eye contact, we call each other names, we automatically write off anyone who doesn’t share our views as being misinformed, manipulated or just stupid.  A one-sentence remark about something like a TV show can spark a 50-comment long thread arguing the validity of skateboarding, food choices or any other myriad of things.  A choice of punctuation causes us to think that someone is perhaps thinking something they are not saying.  

We’ve got to learn to just read and stop reading into so much.

I am just as guilty of this as anyone.  I have been blogging for about 3 years now.  I have always smarted at the lack of comments I get on my personal blog.  I blog mostly about our family’s experiences with autism and while I have a very dedicated group of regular readers, who are mostly my family and friends, I have never understood why my posts do not generate lots of comments.  I see similar blogs that generate oodles of backtalk.  I read into my empty comments page at the end of my blog.  I assume people are not reading, or they are not liking what they read because they don’t say anything about it.

I am reading into no text.  At least my friend is reading into something, I read into nothing.  Touché.

Seriously, though, we’ve all got to stop reading into things so much, we’ve got to stop projecting qualities onto people based on what they say  or don’t say.  I don’t mind good discourse now and again.  If that is your thing, great, but we have to just stop assuming that because people think differently than us, because they react or don’t react or don’t express whatever emotion, view we would like them to, that it means they are saying something negative about us.

Read the text and leave the subtext at home.






About the Author
Dana has made it her habit to break cultural barriers and butcher languages wherever she goes. Born in Pittsburgh, Dana lived and worked in Tel Aviv for five years, before moving to the Netherlands where she lives with her husband and daughter in Amsterdam.