My friends and I all know the unspoken rule of texting: Every message needs an exclamation point, emoji or other indicator you’re not mad. Also, “okay!” needs to be typed as “okay!” — not “OK” or “okay” or, worst of all, “k.” (If you’re going to type it like that, just say you hate me!)
After all, a lot can be left unsaid with just a few letters, such as texting “LOL” in an unfunny situation. This understanding isn’t just among my circle, either: According to an internet linguist, replying “OK” (especially in a work chat setting) can feel aggressive.
But I realised not everyone knows this unspoken rule. While it’s common for people in my generational range — I consider myself a “zilliennial,” born between millennials and Gen Z — many older folks don’t always know how worrisome a “K” text makes us feel.
So let’s talk about it. Why is there a generational divide with texting? Where did it come from, and how can we communicate with loved ones in a more clear way? While the explanations won’t go for every person — I have family members who text as if they’re generations younger than they are, for example — therapists share the psychology behind this phenomenon.
Younger generations typically need extra conversational signals.
We can’t ask this question without asking another one: Where do we learn these social norms, the ones that differ by generation, to some extent? Several factors can be at play. “If we’re looking at where we learn the social norms of texting, that is probably heavily influenced by our peers and media, which we know, when we’re young, tends to heavily influence us,” said Nicholette Leanza, a therapist with LifeStance Health.
Maureen Coyle, an associate psychology professor at Widener University who researches and specialises in social media communication, also pointed to the fact that younger generations are more apt to text. “Because texting is a more default mode of communication for younger generations, younger generations have created much more nuanced norms about it than older generations,” she said.
But what are the messages we receive from those norms, and how do they differ by generation?
Younger people tend to think a short message means someone is ‘being short’ with them.
Signals of how you feel — an emoji, longer message, etc. — can feel like a safety blanket. “I think it’s for emotional assurance,” Leanza said. “Research has shown that Gen Z is the most anxious generation … so they may look at every detail of a text to interpret its meaning. If a text seems too short or clipped without an ‘LOL,’ they may interpret that as the sender being angry or upset with them because, generally, when we speak our words when we’re angry, we tend to be clipped with them as well.”
To some degree, it’s misconstruing effort with intention. “For example, sending a ‘k’ text requires the smallest amount of effort … and can be perceived by the receiver as ‘I must not be worth the effort of a longer message to them, so they must be upset with me,’” Coyle explained. They may also assume the sender doesn’t want to talk anymore, she added.
And that’s an understandable and valid concern. You may have noticed this when you felt angry and wanted to get a message across without any fluff, avoiding extraneous punctuation or images.
“Come to think of it, people typically don’t use such symbols when they are angry,” said Linda Whiteside, a lead clinical counselor at NuView Treatment Center in Los Angeles. “It is easier to infer that a particular message with exclamation points, emojis and other expressions is meant to convey a positive message.”
Texts also lack other conversational signals. “Text messages can be convenient, but it’s important to remember that texting lacks significant components of communication, such as the pitch, tone and volume of a person’s voice during conversation,” said Marisha Mathis, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Raleigh, North Carolina, who specialises in parenting, depression, anger and coping skills. “The absence can leave a lot for interpretation.”
Younger generations default to texting for everything, while older generations have different norms.
Younger people are typically the ones more used to texting than calling or other forms of communication. They may feel more open to texting longer messages, too, as well as having deeper conversations that way.
Communicating by text is often easier for them. “My younger patients have shared with me that they use symbols in their text messages as a way to express their emotions in a method that’s more comfy or familiar than using words,” Whiteside said.
Older people, on the other hand, are used to different norms when communicating. “The older generations will also lean toward using more formal language and proper grammar, like when writing a letter,” Leanza added.
People in Generation X or before usually text with a different purpose and mindset. “It’s more functional, for example, to confirm plans, than conversational,” Mathis said. “As such, they don’t see the need to add in-depth explanations or colour with emojis and exclamation marks.” Plus, they aren’t as accustomed to abbreviations such as “LOL” (which means “laughing out loud,” not “lots of love,” by the way!) as generations who have grown up with texting.
People of older generations also typically prefer having more serious conversations face-to-face or over the phone. “To older generations, text messages can be perceived as just short-hand messages for when typical communication is not possible,” Coyle said. “Text messages are more for ‘Don’t forget to get eggs at the grocery’ messages, not meaningful conversations about work, relationships, etc.” They may even find texting stressful.
Older generations lean toward more straightforward texting, which can be misinterpreted.
Because they aren’t as native to texting, older generations may also worry about misusing abbreviations and emojis.
“I talked to a patient who is in her 60s, and she shared with me that she’s wary of using too many symbols in her texts to her granddaughter because she is worried about being misinterpreted,” Whiteside added. “She said that she might unknowingly use an inappropriate emoji and her granddaughter might perceive it as a joke or something serious.”
Leanza agreed it’s likely nothing personal. “Older generations may also see emojis as immature and unnecessary, especially with using exclamation marks, because not every answer needs to be shouted with excitement.”
It can be easy to assume that other people text like we do and with the same intentions, even when they don’t. And, as a result, anxious minds can get stirred up by overthinking.
Fellow zillennials: A quick reminder that no one’s mad at you.
I’m the first person to worry that someone is mad at me, so if you struggle with this, I get it. But remember, someone’s exclamation-point-less text doesn’t mean they’re angry with you. “Consider other scenarios, such as the possibility that the person may be more accustomed to a shorthand style of writing over text, they may be rushing or may not have the technical capability or knowledge to convey everything they would like,” Mathis said.
But as you know, we all get mad at each other sometimes. If emojis and other texting indicators can’t give us a heads-up, how should we know when an apology is needed? Leanza suggested asking directly and considering the context. “If their tone is usually warm and engaging but you start receiving responses that are more curt, then they may be mad or upset,” she said.
Some best practices for texting loved ones of other generations.
Older folks may be wondering if their exclamation point or fully spelled-out “Okay!” text is really that big of a deal. According to Coyle, it’s something to consider for the benefit of the relationship.
“In my research with younger generations, I have found that when both people use emojis in similar ways, they feel more understood, validated and cared for,” she said. “This is because people like to mirror each other’s communication style to convey similarity and closeness.” In person, the equivalent of an emoji might be nodding or smiling. It’s all in the same realm.
If you’re worried that your message wasn’t received as intended, there are several things you can do. Mathis suggested acknowledging generational differences. For example, your grandma who sends texts with funky spacing due to poor eyesight is probably typing “K” because that’s the best she can do (and that’s totally understandable!). Mathis encouraged patience, being clear with your intentions through your words and adapting to others’ communication styles if needed.
Leanza also recommended mirroring the person you’re texting. “Pay attention to their tone and respond in a way that is consistent with that style,” she said. “Also, be mindful of the context of the conversation as well as the person.”
For example, after a big loss, your friend may not be in the mood to send a bunch of emojis, and may want you to text in a more serious way as well.
We all play a role in effective communication, especially given relationships are a two-way street. So ultimately, when it comes to text messaging, it’s best to mirror others’ texting styles and assume best intent, asking direct questions when necessary. Miscommunications will still happen, of course, and that’s perfectly okay (and OK)!