Psychiatrist Dr. Mimi Winsberg – aka the ‘text whisperer’ – has taken a deep dive into the nuances of texting for her first book, Speaking in Thumbs, in order to help us master today’s most dominant mode of communication. After all, when it comes to communicating in the 21st century, it’s our thumbs that do the talking. By combining behavioural research with real-world text exchanges, she has helped readers recognise red flags in the early days of online dating, examine the personalities and attachment styles of prospective partners, and avoid misunderstandings in romantic relationships. Here, we share the key takeaways of our conversation with this ‘text whisperer’.
1. Early text exchanges can cloud your judgment.
“I think it’s important to note that as we’re getting attached to somebody early on, we’re telling ourselves a story – first about who this person is, then about the kind of relationship we have. And there’s a fair bit of projection that goes into that story sometimes. We’re not necessarily looking at the data that’s in front of us, and that’s where people can get into trouble. Our early text exchanges can therefore betray important clues about things like an individual’s personality traits or attachment style, so it’s not so much about looking for red flags – although I do advise on that, too. It’s more about looking for clues as to who this person really is and whether they’re right for you.”
2. Fluency in texting is essential in modern-day communication.
“Texting is a relatively new language; we’ve only been texting since 2007 and, in some ways, our brains are still struggling to catch up with this notion of asynchronous communication – even though it’s how we conduct most of our lives. It’s certainly the primary form of communication in our romantic relationships. As I was sifting through all these real-world exchanges for the book, I was struck by how profound some of the conversations were. They were emotional, stirring, romantic, but also conflicted at times. That’s why we must acknowledge that our brains skip a few steps sometimes. We don’t read the message exactly as the person intended it. And as we type quickly, we hear the message in our head, but don’t really think about how it’s going to be received.”
3. You can use your text threads to your advantage.
“Our text threads are the electronic medical record of our relationship – there’s this whole history that you can see unfold from beginning to end. Are we supposed to have that? No. And is it doing us a disservice? Perhaps. But it’s here to stay, so I propose that people use it productively. Reviewing texts can help learn something from a relationship, perhaps one that has soured or ended. You want to track the inflection points as the relationship progressed, so by reading past text exchanges, you can see your partner’s patterns of communication and your own. If you tend to get defensive, for example, it will be obvious while reviewing the thread in a way that you couldn’t have seen in the heat of the moment.”
4. The absence of visual cues brings with it both advantages and disadvantages.
“The disadvantage of texting is that everything is distilled down into one bubble, but the advantage is that you can take your time and maybe take a deep breath before responding – and edit before you send. I give plenty of practical tips on how to avoid misunderstandings in the book, but I’d say the first is what John Gottman discusses, which is cultivating attunement. When we like someone in person, one of the characteristic things that we do is make eye contact, pay extra attention to them, and match their body language unconsciously. I think the same kind of thing can happen asynchronously, too – you’ll develop better rapport if you really pay attention to the person and what they’re writing.”
5. There are tell-tale signs of lying over text.
“There are certain linguistic features of people who are being deceptive, and the first is the tendency to drop the first-person pronoun, the ‘I’. Why is that? Because when we lie, we try to emotionally distance ourselves from the statement. It comes off more easily that way. As opposed to something like ‘running late’ – which is such a common abbreviation – an example would be something more personally descriptive. So, instead of saying, ‘I was out with Martin last night’, they’d say, ‘Was out with Martin last night.’ Liars also tend to say the same thing over and over again, hoping that makes it seem truer. It might be repeating the same thing three times about how the car broke down.”
6. It helps to understand your partner’s texting language.
“There’s been a lot of lip service given to Gary Chapman’s love languages and, in the book, I argue that there are five love languages of text, too – different ways to express and receive love over text. Get to know your partner’s preferred method of texting. If they don’t like getting memes or GIFs or article links throughout the day, maybe don’t do that. But if they like you to share such things without necessarily initiating a conversation, then great. I call that love language ‘spoon-feeding’. We’ve observed that various ways of expressing ourselves over text may or may not be compatible with another person.”
7. Instant intimacy can be a red flag.
“I coined the word ‘instamacy’, which of course is instant intimacy. And it’s not to say that I discourage it, per se, because I think one of the key indicators of chemistry is this feeling that it’s so easy to be with the person and you’ve known them forever. But I do think that when it’s too much too soon, it can also be a sign of poor boundaries or an insecure attachment style. Creating a sense of intimacy too quickly can be an exploitative technique. Somebody talking about meeting your family or getting married or going on honeymoon after the second date – those are all warning signs. It overloads the relationship, and it’s a presumption of intimacy that has not yet been built.”
8. Men and women text (very) differently.
“Women tend to perceive a lot of texting as a good sign. In contrast, men feel that things are going really well when there’s less texting going on – that no news is good news. I think that’s an interesting discrepancy. Women tend to favour more communication, and it goes with the volume of texting, too. We’re also more inclined to type longer texts and want frequent texting, whereas men prefer less communication in general. They get overwhelmed easily and can’t handle multiple questions within the same text bubble, so women, keep it short. Men, be metaphorical when you give compliments. Women don’t like reading texts that say, ‘You’re hot.’ Try to be a little bit more poetic in your delivery.”