A very good friend of mine used to have another very good friend. They had attended primary school together and then shared an apartment while they were in college. These two went way back. Then, they fell in love with the same guy. My friend ended up with the short end of the stick — the guy in question started dating her friend. They had a happy relationship for several years, but when they broke up, the man in question decided to leave his ex-girlfriend's stuff, which had been at his apartment, with my friend.
My friend sent her former roommate a text message: "Dan left your stuff at my place. When do you want to pick it up?" Thinking the message sounded a little harsh in a difficult situation... she decided to add a smiley to the end of the message. My friend didn't see her best buddy from childhood for 10 years after she came to pick her stuff up. All those years, my friend was puzzled. When they met again a decade later, her friend explained that she had interpreted the smiley as meaning "yeehee, I'm so happy you finally broke up with the man I wanted to date too". That smiley was a fateful one indeed, one that ended a nearly life-long friendship forever.
Text messages, let's face it, aren't the ideal mode of communication. Sometimes, there is simply too much to be said in such a short space, and things like rogue smileys end up determining how the other person interprets your message.
Periods Are Rude?
A research team from Binghamton University set out to discover how people interpret text messages. Led by associate professor of psychology and associate dean at Binghamton University's Harpur College Celia Klin, the team recruited 126 Binghamton undergraduates who were asked to read a range of messages, either in the form of hand-written notes or in the form of text messages. The messages contained both statements and invitations that ended with a question mark. The answered consisted of one-word messages that ended either with a period, an exclamation mark, or with no punctuation at all.
The result? Interestingly enough, the research team, whose research was published in Computers in Human Behavior, found that people perceived those text messages that ended with a period as being less sincere than those that didn't include punctuation at all. Those messages that finished with an exclamation mark, on the other hand, were seen as more enthusiastic and profound. Meanwhile, no such difference in interpretation was perceived in the hand-written messages the participants also examined.
Why? According to Klin:
"Texting is lacking many of the social cues used in actual face-to-face conversations. When speaking, people easily convey social and emotional information with eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice, pauses and so on. People obviously can’t use these mechanisms when they are texting. Thus, it makes sense that texters rely on what they have available to them – emoticons, deliberate misspellings that mimic speech sounds and, according to our data, punctuation."
What Can We Learn From This Study?
Modes of communication such as Facebook messages, Twitter, and text messages don't give us the chance to use very many words. In such contexts, people tend to rely on the only clues they have to figure out the emotions behind the messages they receive — things like emoticons and yes, punctuation.
Do you want to tell your loved-ones that you want to go out for dinner, that you'll pick up those groceries on the way back from work, that you love them too, or that you'll get in touch later, when you have a bit more time? Ignore the grammar junkies and refrain from using periods. By using either no punctuation at all or an exclamation mark, your message will be perceived more positively.
Is that all we can learn, though? Not in my opinion. If you think there's a chance you may be misunderstood, there's always that other medium — the telephone call. When people can hear your voice, they are much more likely to be able to interpret your feelings and intentions correctly.