“How do you decode emotions in text messages?”
Text messages can often be very confusing. It can be especially challenging to understand emotions when we communicate through text messages. With the lack of facial expressions and body language, we can often misinterpret the intended message and tone resulting in disastrous misunderstandings. So how can we read emotions in texts? Let’s find out.
“What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean?” – Antonin Scalia
It’s easy when people say they are angry or sad or excited, or if they tack an emoji to the end of a text. But when they don’t? Given that even face-to-face communication can be confusing, it should not surprise us that truncated, dashed-off text messages can result in disastrous misunderstandings.
In the age of technology, we not only need to decode in-person interactions, but we also need to decode textual transmissions.
How do we know what a person is feeling when we can’t see their faces or body language?
Here are six tips to help you better decode emotions in text messages, or at least prevent yourself from jumping to conclusions based on scant evidence.
1. Assume good intentions
In general, text messages are short. We have very little information to work with. A smiley face or series of exclamation points can help assure us that the text is meant to express positive emotion, but texts do not always include these extra emotion indicators. Our friends’ busy schedules lead to abrupt messages, and our partner’s playful sarcasm isn’t always read as playful.
Keep in mind that texts are a difficult medium for communicating emotion. We have no facial expressions or tone of voice, or conversation to give us more information.
If the text doesn’t say, “I’m angry,” then don’t assume that the texter is angry. We are better off reading texts with the assumption that the texter has good intentions. Otherwise, we may end up in lots of unnecessary arguments.
“Texting is a fundamentally sneaky form of communication, which we should despise, but it is such a boon we don’t care. We are all sneaks now.” – Lynne Truss
2. Cultivate awareness of unconscious biases
In my research, I have had to train numerous teams of emotion coders. But even trained coders who meet weekly to discuss discrepancies don’t agree on which emotion (or how much emotion) is being expressed. People just do not see emotions in the same way. We have unconscious biases that lead us to draw different conclusions based on the same information.
For example, every time I lead a coding team I am reminded that males and females often differ in how they interpret others’ emotions. If Bob writes: “My wife missed our 10-year anniversary,” men may think Bob is angry, while women may think Bob is sad.
I don’t presume to know exactly why this is, but I can say confidently that our emotion-detection skills are affected by characteristics about us. When it comes to detecting emotion in texts, try to remember that our unconscious biases affect our interpretations. The emotions we detect may be reflective of things about us just as much as they are reflective of the information in the text.
3. Explore the emotional undertones of the words themselves
The words people use often have emotional undertones. Think about some common words—words like love, hate, wonderful, hard, work, explore, or kitten.
If a text reads, “I love this wonderful kitten,” we can easily conclude that it is expressing positive emotions. If a text reads, “I hate this hard work,” that seems pretty negative. But, if a text reads, “This wonderful kitten is hard work,” what emotion do we think is being expressed?
One approach to detecting emotions when they appear to be mixed is to use the “bag-of-words” method. This just means that we look at each word separately. How positive are the words “kitten” and “wonderful”? And how negative are the words “hard” and “work”? By looking at how positive and negative each word is, we may be able to figure out the predominant emotion the texter is trying to express. Give this bag-of-words method a try when you are having a hard time figuring out the emotion in a text.
“Texting is very loose in its structure. No one thinks about capital letters or punctuation when one texts, but then again, do you think about those things when you talk?” – John H. McWhorter
4. Don’t assume you know how a person feels
Text messages aren’t just short. They’re also incomplete.