Textual Listening: How Texting Changes the Way We Listen

by Tina VanSteenbergen

Texting-Too-MuchTexting is one of my favorite things. As a transplant to Indianapolis by way of countless stops throughout the Midwest with good friends all over the world, texting allows me to stay connected to all of them. Let’s be real honest for a minute—it also allows me to send a secret emoji to my friend sitting right next to me about my clandestine reaction to what’s happening around us. Getting a text is one of the best parts of my day. I’d feel a little shame about that, if research didn’t tell us that text messages and other cell phone notifications are rewiring our brains to experience joy in different ways. I know I’m not alone here. We love to text. To get them, receive them, write them in clever ways, and literally LOL as we read them. Text messages have become an undeniably exciting parts of our daily lives. Exciting, and pervasive. Very, very pervasive.

Think about it. Think about how texting has changed the way we connect, the way we communicate. Look back up at that paragraph—at the part where I said “LOL.” I didn’t need to first say Laugh Out Loud, followed immediately by an abbreviated explanation (LOL). I didn’t need to follow that acronym with a parenthetical definition (and by “LOL,” I mean “laugh out loud’). I wouldn’t have needed to define ROTFL for most of you, JK, OMG, or BRB either. Because we, through the development of messaging technology, we’ve just learned it. We’ve learned a new textual language. We’ve learned it so well, in fact, that it doesn’t just exist in text messages, or even just in writing.

Take another second and think about the way we talk to one another. Have you ever looked at your friend at the end of a story and just said, “LOL”? Or said, as you run into the kitchen for a snack, “BRB!”? I know I have. I’ve become quite fluent in our textual language—so much so, that for me it doesn’t even stop at the acronyms and abbreviations. I’ve started to notice myself talking exactly as I would via text message. Which means I’ve also started to listen the way that I text. Allow me to illustrate.

In a text message conversation, I might ask my friend “Where do you want to go to dinner tonight?” Immediately, underneath my text, appears the speech bubble—the animated ellipsis that indicates to me that my friend is typing. Typing, typing, typing his life away. While that bubble keeps staring at me, keeps moving, I start to type my own ideas about dinner. Send that message. My friend stops typing for a moment, and the bubble disappears while he reads my latest ideas. Then of course, there it appears, indicating to me one more time that my friend is typing, typing, typing. Now I’m assuming that he’s expertly crafting an excuse not to go to dinner, so I start to write a rebuttal, telling him that he’s not allowed to bail on me, we can go wherever you want. In the middle of my typing, my phone quickly vibrates, and I look up to see a new message from my friend. Not one of a disappointing opt-out of our plans, but a response to all of my location ideas and a few new options. I then of course delete my almost-complete text message to him, pick my two favorite options and ask that he pick the one he likes the best. He selects the restaurant of choice, and I respond with a smiley face emoji, and a high five emoji (that I’m not actually sure is an official “high five,” but I use as such regardless).

…Sound familiar?

I don’t think I’m the only one that has textual conversations like this. But am I the only one that has conversations like this NOT in textual form? But in real life, face-to-face conversations with real people? Let’s find out…

I’m sitting on the couch with my friend, and say “I want to go to get dinner tonight. Wanna come with? Where should we go?” He sits and thinks for a moment, and starts to talk about everything he has to do that night. In the middle of his sentence, in the middle of his proverbial animated speech bubble, I interject: “I know you’re busy, but we can run all those errands together, and just grab dinner first! Don’t pretend like you don’t want some delicious food in your life tonight…” He smiles, quietly LOLs, and shifts focus to our dining location. He lists off a few places, and I react to each as they’re said. He names a spot, and I respond with a “NOPE,” a “Meh,” or an “Mmmm that sounds delicious.” We trade restaurants and responses back and forth for a few minutes, and I listen for a moment, his moving ellipsis continuing to move, before I name the two places I’ve heard him mention that I’m most excited about, telling him he has to choose one. Finally, he names the restaurant of choice. We smile at one another, share a high five, and get up to go.


(We’re not even going to get into the whole talking-in-hashtag-thing, but we all know it’s a thing.)

I love to text, but I am starting to notice how severely it has impacted the way we communicate with one another in real life. We talk the way we text. We speak in abbreviations and hashtags, we actually LOL and BRB. But mostly, I think we’ve started to listen like we text.

When that magical speech bubble appears, it’s essentially telling me that my fellow-texter is talking—they’re typing, sure, but that’s really just the textual version of talking. And we (I) have no issue beginning to type while they’re typing—to begin to talk, while they’re talking.

We listen like we text. We process what they’re saying and instantly begin to respond to it. We jump in immediately, with our own explanation, an emoji, or even an “OMG me too!!”

Textual listening is happening in our friendships, our relationships. Texting is altering the way we talk, type, and listen, and I fear it’s becoming a problem. Because we’re both typing at the same time. But it isn’t typing when its real life.

I’m not saying that we should stop texting—remember, I love to text. Like, “emoji-with-heart-eyes” love it. I’m not even necessarily saying that we should stop creating our own animated ellipsis while we see our friend’s’ I am saying, though, that we cannot listen and talk like we text. Not without missing a lot of information, without interrupting our friend, silencing our curiosity, and making any conversation about us. I am saying, that we need to leave the texting to our cell phones, and remember that face-to-face conversations are different. Human connection requires a different kind of attention, a different skill set. Require us to stop textual listening, and actually just listen.