When Texting, One Little Thing Makes a Big Difference
When texting in a hurry, punctuation is the first thing to go. Although improvements in cell phone keyboards and a widespread increase in general tech-savviness have rendered such overly abbreviated messages as “c u l8r” old-fashioned and (mostly) obsolete, texting is still a medium that calls for efficiency. However, researchers from Binghamton University have found that text recipients interpret messages differently based on the presence or absence of one simple thing: a period.
In "Texting insincerely: The role of the period in text messaging," a study of 126 college students, researchers from Binghamton’s Center for Cognitive and Psycholinguistic Sciences found that text messages punctuated with a period at the end were considered “less sincere” than identical text messages received without the period. Participants were presented with a series of brief conversational exchanges, in which a brief, informal message containing a question (“Dave gave me his extra tickets. Wanna go?”) was replied to with an affirmative one-word response like “Okay,” “Sure,” “Yeah,” or “Yup.” In half the cases, the exact reply was “Sure.” (note the period), and in the other half, the response was “Sure” – sans period. Surprisingly, this subtle manipulation was enough to cause respondents to rate the punctuation-free message as more sincere, and the correctly punctuated message as less sincere.
In addition to determining whether the period itself carried interpretive weight, the researchers also manipulated the medium by which the message was sent. Some participants were shown images of texts, represented by messages pictured on a cell phone screen, while others were shown identically worded messages hand-written on photocopied scraps of lined, loose-leaf paper (looking a lot like notes that students might pass to one another in class). Respondents in the hand-written message scenario rated both punctuated and unpunctuated sentences as equally sincere as one another, and both were judged equally as sincere as text messages without a final period. For some reason, then, a period seems to have a greater impact in text messages (a form of what psychologists call computer-mediated communication, or CMC) than it does in written communication.
As to why a digital period carries more meaning than one written in ballpoint pen, the researchers were reluctant to speculate. In the study, they conclude “not so much that the period is used to convey a lack of sincerity in text messages, but that punctuation is one of the cues used by senders, and understood by receivers, to convey pragmatic and social information.” In the absence of vocal inflection, facial expression, body language, pauses, and eye contact, a humble period might be worth more, relatively speaking. There are plenty of believers in the importance of proper text punctuation etiquette already, with various parties anecdotally convinced that ending a message with a period indicates passive-aggression, omitting an exclamation point (or three) constitutes rudeness, or that only old people use commas—but ultimately, it’s between the sender and the receiver to negotiate mutual understanding of what a text means. And if there’s any lingering doubt as to whether a response is sincere or not, maybe someday there’ll be an emoji for that.
[h/t Pacific Standard]