Texting has become ubiquitous in our personal and professional lives. Long gone are the days of sending a memo or leaving a voicemail—texting asynchronous messages is the default mode of communication for people of all ages and backgrounds.
The first text message was sent in 1992 when Michael Papworth sent a “Merry Christmas” message to a colleague. The following year, Nokia released the first cell phone capable of sending SMS (short message service). SMS messages were limited to 160 characters and had to be typed using a numeric keypad, leading to the development of slang and abbreviations to communicate.
Text messages allow users to exchange information efficiently and remove the pressure of responding immediately during a phone call. While it’s the quickest form of communication, it’s also ripe with opportunities for miscommunication. This is because in the absence of cues such as tone of voice or body language, it is difficult to discern what someone is trying to tell us.
Whether you’ve been on the receiving end of a rude text or were the one to commit a social slip, proper texting etiquette can help ensure your messages (and manners) are on point. Use the following recommendations to make sure your professional and personal communication is clear and effective.
Clarity is Key
“Can we talk? Call me, please.”
Imagine getting this text message from your boss. Are you instantly on edge? If so, you’re experiencing a common phenomenon caused by the lack of context behind the question. Cryptic messages are rife with opportunities for miscommunication, so be sure to give your recipient enough information so they can respond appropriately.
Written communication makes it hard to pick up on someone’s tone. Any ambiguity can be seen as negative, which is a major factor in miscommunication. Shorter messages are more susceptible to negativity bias (hence why “Okay, great” is a better response than “K”).
If you’re struggling to understand what they’re saying, ask! This is especially important if you’re having a serious conversation over texting because you need to focus on their intent and not let your emotions get the best of you.
As easy as it can be to pull out your phone and shoot a quick text, there are times when an email, phone call, or secure massaging app like WhatsApp is more appropriate. When it comes to workplace-related communication, limit text messages to items that require a quick response or to share a key piece of information. Complex discussions, confidential information, and other sensitive subjects should not be discussed via texting.
Know When Not to Text
Picture this: You’re at lunch with a friend when they wordlessly pull out their phone to answer a text. Suddenly, your face-to-face interaction has taken a backseat to their screen. Be mindful of when the people around you deserve your full attention and put your phone away.
Meals, movies, performances, and conversations with loved ones are all inappropriate times to pull out your phone. Texting and driving is also banned in most states to combat the dangers of distracted driving.
In general, prioritize communicating with the people you are physically with and wait until later to respond to a text. If you’re tempted to text under the table, think again—even if others can’t see your phone, your body language will give you away.
Mind the Time
In general, it’s best to avoid texting someone after 9 p.m. or first thing in the morning. Both can be seen as an invasion of privacy, especially for non-urgent situations. With coworkers, a good rule of thumb is to only text during the hours that you would expect that person to be at work. Either wait for an appropriate time or understand that you may not get an immediate response.
If you send an after-hours text, refrain from texting them again a few minutes later. Sure, they might be able to give you a quick reply, but they might also be busy getting their kids ready for bed. In this instance, the breach of etiquette isn’t a slow response—it’s double texting and the implied demand of a response.
Acknowledge the Message
Most of us are guilty of opening a text and forgetting to respond. We’re all busy, but it’s never a good idea to leave people on ‘read.’ If you don’t have time to respond immediately, you should still acknowledge the message to avoid miscommunication.
A quick note, emoji, or text reaction lets the sender know you saw it. If you’re the one waiting on a response, don’t be afraid to politely follow up, and don’t assume that silence means you’re being ignored.
The appropriate response time also depends on what the text message is about. Time-sensitive messages need to be answered quickly while nonurgent ones can go longer without a response. However, in general, it’s important to reply within 24–48 hours to avoid being rude and inconsiderate. If you slip up and fail to respond within that timeframe, include a succinct apology.
Use Emojis and Abbreviations Wisely
Misused emojis and abbreviations lead to hurt feelings and misconstrued messages. When it comes to abbreviations, only type what you would comfortably say out loud (so skip things like “WTF” or “LMAO”).
If you’re worried about the 160-character limit, some acceptable and commonly understood abbreviations include OMW, FYI, and ETA. However, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so take the time to type the whole word when you can.
The same applies to emojis because they mean different things to different audiences. For example, the nail polish emoji is used to imply that someone feels sassy, and a leafy emoji is often used to refer to marijuana. When in doubt, save face with a quick Google search before including emojis and abbreviations.
Use the Correct Tone
Text messages are easily misinterpreted, so it’s important to pay attention to your tone. According to communication theorist Dr. Nick Morgan, only half of what we send via texting is understood as we mean it. For example, people tend to interpret short messages like “great work” or “nice job” as sarcastic 60% of the time.
Emojis can help clarify the tone of text messages (provided you use the appropriate emojis!). “OK” by itself can be interpreted in numerous ways—passive aggressiveness, apathy, submission, and acceptance, among others.
By adding a smiling face to the “OK,” you remove the emotional ambiguity and give context that is otherwise missing is text-based communication. The same goes for adding friendly, polite phrasing such as “please” and “thank you” to your messages.
Texting is a simple way to communicate, but it’s just as easy to send the wrong message or have your message misinterpreted. Most importantly, never text clients or customers without getting their consent first. Be sure to identify yourself in the preliminary text—there’s no guarantee that they have your contact information saved.
Avoid overusing emojis and exclamation marks. While a few set an approachable tone, overdoing it makes your message off-putting and unprofessional. Respond to their texts promptly, but stay within business hours. If you’re having a complex or difficult conversation, move it to a phone call or meeting.
What rules would you add to this list of texting etiquette? Contact us with your ideas!