The way we text says a lot about our personality

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I’ll admit it: I often tweet in all lowercase because I want to seem chill and nonchalant. I know this is dumb. I know it. But I can’t resist. I’m a relaxed person! This week, Vox’s Kaitlyn Tiffany and I ask why we type the way we do. Are we really that cool?

First, I chat with my friend Laura who also types in all lowercase all the time. She’s truly dedicated to the effort. Then, Kaitlyn interviews The Verge’s copy editor Kara Verlaney about her thoughts on proper punctuation across the internet and all its forms. Finally, we interview linguist Lauren Collister about whether we’re just psychoanalyzing all of our typing habits for no reason, or if there’s real research around this topic. (Spoiler alert: there is!)

Listen to the podcast and follow along with Collister’s transcript, below. Of course, feel free to subscribe anywhere you typically get your podcasts or listen to the show below. You know our usual places: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and our RSS feed. Subscribe your friends, too! Steal their phones and just sign them up for the podcast; they’ll love it.

Ashley: We are back, and we are here with Dr. Lauren Collister, a linguist and librarian at the University of Pittsburgh. Hi, Lauren.

Lauren Collister: Hello.

Ashley Carman: Thanks for joining us today.

It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.

Kaitlyn Tiffany: Let’s get into it. We’re talking about why people deliberately text in lowercase — basically why you make the choice to fight autocorrect because you want it to be in all lowercase. If we could start just talking a little bit about what makes text messages or tweets different than other forms of written communication?

An interesting thing about texting and tweeting is that it’s an informal way of writing language down. It’s different from other forms like letters, contracts, receipts, or even email in some cases because those are a formal way of writing. So there are conventions: there’s an introductory line where you have to put a comma, you have to put the date in a specific place, you have to use a certain form of language that people generally perceive as very formal. If you don’t use the formal language, it gives maybe the wrong impression. If you use very casual language, if you use slang in a letter or a formal message written down, then it isn’t seen as proper, and we’re taught that in schools — in elementary school, and many of us have been learning this for years and years.

But when you get to text messaging or tweeting, there aren’t really rules for that that we’ve been taught. They are more informal. They are quick. They are intended to be more like those quickly written notes that you pass to your friends in class, or a quick note to yourself, a reminder of something that’s interesting that you might not have a formal way of writing these things down. Without those constraints of structure being very formal, then we have room to play. People can express themselves in a certain style in using different means of language that can show that they’re a little bit different than everybody else. They have their own way of writing, just as we have our own way of speaking to each other.

When you’re speaking a language, we can be in more formal situations and informal situations as well. So, a formal situation might be something like a podcast interview or a job interview or a public lecture where you’re expected to use a certain kind of language. But when you’re speaking to your friends, when you’re out at a bar, when you’re talking on the phone, maybe to your close family, you can use more informal language and a little bit more of your style. Your own personal way of speaking can come out.

That’s what text messaging, and to some extent for some people, tweets, can do for written language. They give us a chance to express more of our own personal style. And people do that with different forms of so-called nonstandard written language, like lowercase letters, removing punctuation, using slang, using abbreviations and emoji, and all kinds of things.

Ashley: Do you think that we’re more formal over email because it’s just an older form than texting? I’m curious why email, which is still very internet-based… it’s not a letter. I can understand what you’re saying where growing up you learn “Dear blah blah blah… Sincerely,” in the letter and how it’s supposed to be formatted. But why is email spared of these strange conventions?

That’s a great question, and I don’t think it’s the same for everybody. So for people who have been using email and the internet for a long time through our lives, it is a very flexible medium where it could be something formal where you actually have a “Dear so and so. I am writing to inquire about your open position.” You can have a closing and a signature line. If you use email a lot for work, it might be formal in those cases. But then, if you go and you email your friend to make plans for when they come to visit, then it might turn into something less formal.

I’ve noticed that some people who are now in high school, my stepdaughter, for example, think that email is very formal because that’s what you use to communicate with your teachers. It’s associated with school or it’s associated with more formal things that people are starting to associate with a formal style of language. And it does have some of the aspects. It can have, and often does have, some of those aspects of a letter. There’s like a “dear so and so,” an introduction, a closing. Especially if you use a signature line, that can signal some of those letter-like components and cue us to use more formal language. Of course, it’s different for everybody. And it depends on, for many people, what you’re using your email for. It’s more of the situation than the medium.

Kaitlyn: This is one of the episodes that we decided to do because we’re like, “Yeah, we both actually do that.” When I tweet, I force it to be all lowercase because I feel like if I were using capital letters and correct punctuation, it would look too earnest. That’s not the popular attitude on Twitter. Is that something I’m making up in my brain?

No. You’re not making that up. This is a widely observed phenomenon. There was this study out maybe two years ago about the period, specifically, and how people perceived that when they received a text message or a message in some sort of informal internet medium that ended in a period, it was seen as somehow angry or rude. Whereas if there was no period, it was seen as more informal, more friendly. It was a really interesting study because it showed that by adhering to these formal mechanisms for punctuation, people perceive a greater formality, which indicates a greater distance between the people.

If we’re best friends and all of a sudden I start talking to you like I’m in a formal job interview, and I start using big words and exact correct grammar in all cases, then it’s weird, right? It indicates that there’s a distance between us where I have to be very respectful versus when we’re close and we have our own language. We have our own style that we use together — informal language and slang. One way of indicating that is to use non-standard language. One of those things has become the different use of punctuation in texting and social media. So no, you haven’t made that up, and there’s actually a study all about it.

Ashley: So then what’s up with these people — ahem, Kara, who we interviewed earlier — who use periods in every sentence? I also went out with a guy once who was like, “Well, it’s just the proper way to type, and I’m not going to compromise the proper punctuation just because it makes you feel more comfortable.” And I’m like, “What? It’s insane to use periods everywhere in your texts!” What’s up with that? Who are these people? What’s going on in their brains?

So that’s again the style, right? So people who do that might value that sort of formal writing, that kind of tone. I’m sure we all know these people in our relationships, our friendships, who always have something very important to say or who can go on at length about interesting studies or politics, and speak in a very formal way all the time when they’re talking about these things. That’s their style. It’s a different style, and one that might clash with people who are more informal in these situations, but it’s really about personal style and how you want to represent yourself through language. The choices that we make about whether we use periods in every sentence to adhere to more formal grammar, or if we are a little bit looser, a little bit freer, and play a little bit more with our language, can say something about our personalities, how we view ourselves, what we think is important in life.

Just as when we speak, if we use certain words or phrases, it can indicate where we are from or where we grew up. Using periods or using proper capitalization can indicate that we are perhaps educated or that we are writers or that we are intellectuals or that we value a formal tone in some way. That says something about a person’s style and personality. That’s just another way of being able to express oneself in a kind of different way that might be slightly different from the people around you to be a little bit of an individual.

Those people are just choosing a different style of communicating, and it might clash with some of the expectations, but by choosing that style and communicating in that way, they are going to run into those clashes, and how we navigate that is something that’s still ongoing and something that we as humans, who are really great at communicating, we navigate this in our everyday lives all the time. It’s just another new way of navigating that.

Ashley: Do you think the norms around texting are totally established now, or is it still developing?

That’s the beautiful thing about language. It is always changing and always developing. When a language stops changing for either an individual or as a whole society, that’s a bad sign for that language. One of the hallmarks of a living, robust language is that it is always changing. That means that the forms, the grammar, the words, the vocabulary, the phrases, the tone, they’re going to keep changing over time in spoken language, in text messaging, in whatever the next version of social media is that we’re going to have. There will be new things to learn, new forms of language to play with, and new ways to express ourselves.

People, as they go through their lives, change their way of speaking sometimes. They change their way of using language. They learn new forms. They start realizing that, “Oh, this thing that I’ve seen other people do is actually valuable for me, and I might want to accommodate to that, to pick up some of this, and bring it into my own way of speaking because I’ve seen its value, and I like it, and I’ve gotten used to it. It’s no longer weird and new.”

This happens all the time. Even what people develop the skill to do, is to accommodate to whoever they are speaking to. If you become really good friends with somebody, and they are very casual and very informal when they text, there have been a lot of studies. There was one very recently that shows that people are more likely to use more “textisms,” or text speak or whatever it is that’s informal language, if the person they’re speaking to is doing that. If my friend uses lots of emoji in her text messages to me, but I don’t typically use emoji, I might use them back to her because I see her using them. That’s something we learn about each other over time, and it’s something that we can develop as these ways of speaking or ways of using language become more entrenched in society and more broadly used.

That accommodation is something that people develop, but also it’s about getting used to things. So your friend who uses periods at the end of every sentence might eventually come to realize that, “Oh, this isn’t really conveying the message that I want to send here, and I can send a different kind of message or different kind of tone by using this different form.” They might decide to do that, or they may not decide to do that. It’s about their style, but also about accommodating to the person they’re speaking with, and also about language change for an individual and for a society.

Kaitlyn: What you mentioned just now about adapting to whatever the person you’re talking to is doing. This brings to me to a possibly dumb question of: are there such things as “language influencers”? I’m specifically thinking of former One Direction member Niall Horan who puts two spaces around every piece of punctuation, which I am now very tempted to do because I think it looks whimsical, and I also love him. But is this something that exists in a broader, less silly sense?

Yes. There have always been people in the popular eye who might have a specific word or phrase that they use that becomes cool because somebody who’s a celebrity or a pop star uses it. Now, when things go viral, it seems like a word or phrase becomes really popular for a short period of time, while something has gone viral. The most prominent example of this, I think, was, “on fleek.” There was just the one video where the woman uses that phrase, and that goes viral, and then suddenly everybody for a short period of time is using that, referring to this one person who just used it once. Then it spreads, and more and more people see it, more and more people use it. But then, basically, as soon as adults start using it and realize what’s going on, like grown-up people, then it becomes uncool again, and it dies.

This is just slang. This is how slang gets created. This is how new, cool vocabulary gets created and spreads. But, it also happens with more formal things, too. So most notably, this happens in literature and poetry. An example is Gertrude Stein. She was a noted hater of exclamation points and question marks and used this very flattened sentence style in her writing. And then writers after her — Earnest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings — also used that flattened style, and E. E. Cummings is notable for lowercase all over the place and punctuation unusualness. This one person writing in this one style affects other writers who write in a different style. This is not just something related to social media; it’s something that happens quite often throughout all kinds of other forms of language.

Ashley: Yeah. I think the language influencers in my life are my friends. I remember our friend Lizzie types the word damn, as D-A-M-B, for some weird reason. I should ask her about this. But when I first saw her do this, I was like, “that’s weird,” and now I do it. And I have a friend who, instead of writing “probably” or “prob” or whatever, she writes, “prolly,” and when I first saw that I was like, “that’s weird,” but now I use it, too.

Right.

Kaitlyn: Yeah. I accidentally stole “Oh spit” from Lizzie, too.

Ashley: Yeah. Damn it, Lizzie. Damb it.

This is how we form in-groups. You have a group of friends, and we have things that we do together with our group of friends, but we also have ways that we talk that define us as a group. We have in-jokes. We have things that we had one friend say once, and it was really silly, or whatever, and we adopt that as the indicator of, “Oh yeah, I’ve been around when I saw you say that weird thing, and I’m going to use that weird phrase to remind us all of it because we’re all friends and have known each other for a long time.”

So that form of language that develops in groups of friends like that, where you all influence each other all the time, that’s the way we get these small community of practice, kind of based language.

There was a big study. Penny Eckert did this in a high school in Detroit where she studied language with jocks and burn-outs in the school. This is back a couple of decades ago. It’s a little bit old now, but people still do these studies today where you look at a group of friends in a school and you find out, “Oh these folks use these kinds of words, or they speak the local dialect much more strongly, and this other group of friends either uses a different set of words, or uses a different version of the local dialect or has just avoided using the local dialect altogether because of something about the way they identify.”

It’s really interesting. Those friend groups, or those language influencers, as you say, can drive that language change and result in some really interesting language situations, even in a small area or a small group of people where two groups of people will speak very differently. They’ll still be able to understand each other, but be able to mark themselves as part of one group or another based on the way they speak.

Ashley: Great. So, I think we’re going to wrap up, but I guess we need to know who we’re talking to here. Do you use all lowercase ever, or are you a true punctuation queen who loves to use the proper periods and whatnot?

I’m a code switcher. I will use all lowercase when I’m texting somebody informally, when I’m texting with my husband or my best friend, but when I’m texting with, for example, my stepmother, who uses very formal language in her text message, then I will accommodate to her and try to do that back, so that we’re speaking the same language. But I will switch my style depending on what I’m talking about and who I’m talking to.

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