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When 'k' is not 'okay': Behind the many generational differences in texting

Chances are, you have yet to pick up the phone today to call someone, but you've likely messaged someone. Texting tops the list of the most popular forms of communication, with over 3 billion people worldwide using messaging apps as of 2021. Meanwhile, phone calls are on the decline. In the U.K. alone, in 2022, the volume of outgoing calls from fixed and mobile phones decreased by 24.5 billion minutes from the previous year, continuing a yearslong downward trend.

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stay physically apart, it increased reliance on digital communications, both personally and professionally. The rise of remote work, which has reshaped work cultures despite pandemic restrictions have largely lifted, is predicted to continue. Upwork estimates that 40.7 million Americans will be working remotely by 2026. Some companies, however, have issued in-office mandates for their employees for a few days in the work week. At the very least, hybrid work—and sending short messages to and fro to collaborate—is here to stay.

With so many Americans working from home, even if only part of the time, the stakes for digital communication, whether over text or via professional messaging platforms, are higher than ever. Yet short-format digital communications are potentially the culprits behind many misunderstandings due to the tendency for tone or nuance to be lost.

Texted exchanges, whether between employees and managers or parents and children, can lead to miscommunications for reasons as small as a period at the end of a word or sentence and as subtle as perceived passive aggression. Studies into the messaging habits and conventions of people of various ages have revealed traceable generational differences in how people communicate via text. These disparities, which range from punctuation to capitalization to the use of emojis, can mean the difference between being on the same page and completely missing the point.

To get to the bottom of how intergenerational miscommunications occur, Visible partnered with Stacker and dove into studies to explore what gets lost in texting translation and learn how different generations can understand each other better.

The trouble with texts

Though texting miscommunications can happen to anyone, one factor has an outsized impact on these mishaps: Larger age gaps between correspondents are more likely to result in more substantial differences in expectations around texting, according to a small research study from Weber State University.

For one, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization conventions vary enormously among texters of different ages. Older correspondents, including boomers, tend to use complete sentences and proper punctuation when writing text messages, mimicking how they would construct letters or emails. On the other hand, younger generations are more likely to forgo standard written conventions like periods and capitalization, viewing them as formal, curt, and out of place in the more intimate and informal forum of texting.

There are also generational differences in the use of abbreviated words and phrases. For older texters, shorthand replies like "ok" or "k" may seem harmless and straightforward. But for younger texters, these responses (particularly when not a part of a longer message) are often seen as indicators the sender is angry, upset, or doesn't think the recipient is worthy of a longer response. As a result, Gen Z and millennial texters often tack on additional words like "sounds good" or "cool" or add an exclamation point to the "ok" to "soften" the tonal delivery of the message.

Younger generations' aversion to short messages that lack emotional context likely goes back to their intimate familiarity with texting as a mode of communication. Having lived a more significant proportion of their lives with texting, young people have "created much more nuanced norms about it than older generations," social media communication scholar Maureen Coyle told The Huffington Post.

This familiarity and nuance means that even small things that seem insignificant to older texters have taken on myriad connotations for younger ones. On the flip side, older generations tend to approach texting literally, taking things at face value and missing some of the double meanings young people understand.

Texting tweaks to send just the right message

Some of the pitfalls of texting between generations could be avoided by understanding how those generations approach texting differently.

According to linguist John McWhorter, texting is a short-form communication that more closely mirrors spoken communication than written; in other words, it has evolved to mimic speech patterns rather than the traditional grammar and structure of writing. When it adheres too much to written conventions rather than spoken ones, it can feel stilted, particularly to younger generations.

This could explain why using periods at the ends of messages could convey a clipped, shortened tone to younger texters while seeming perfectly normal to older ones. Stream-of-consciousness messages with a conversational tone come across as more natural—and, therefore, more interpretable—to younger generations.

Experts have also weighed in on avoiding miscommunications when texting and messaging, both personally and in professional settings. Using emojis sparingly can help to clarify the tone of a message that could otherwise be ambiguous. Choosing the right punctuation, particularly in one-word or very short messages, can also help. An "Okay." with a period can seem more curt than an "Okay" sans punctuation, for example. Don't forget to proofread your message as well. Texts filled with typos can imply a message written hastily and in anger for some readers.

Importantly, experts agree that some kinds of conversations—particularly the more difficult ones—are probably still better to have over the phone or face-to-face, where there's less room for misunderstanding and a better ability to express nuance.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.


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