The art of the "accidental" text (on purpose)

When and why do people “fext”? When does it actually work?

When and why do people “fext”? When does it actually work?

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What is an "accidental" text? It must not be confused with an accidental text. We've all sent texts by accident, butt-texting people, or punching in our message to the wrong conversation thread. The "accidental" text is an intentional text which purports to be an accidental. The scare quotes around "accidental" indicate it's ersatz nature. It is a subterfuge whereby one sends a text intentionally to a target which is intended to be read as an accident. It is also known as the "accidental-on-purpose text", "fake text", or even "fext" (for "fake texting").

One of the most prominent pop-cultural examples of this manoeuvre appeared in a 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm entitled "The Accidental Text on Purpose".

In this episode, Marty Funkhouser's new girlfriend is angry because Larry had insulted her at a get-together and Funkhouser failed to stand up to her. He has tried to apologize, it didn't work. Marty decides to write a text telling off Larry and defending his gf, but "accidentally" sends it to her to demonstrate that he is standing up for her against his friends. In the episode, the ploy works immediately. Marty's gf texts back within second forgiving and and declaring her love for him.

On the face of it, the scene seems wildly implausible. How could anyone be taken in by such a transparent and self-serving deception? However, it also may lead many to wonder: how common is "accidental" texting? How and when is it used?  And does it work? In order to answer this question, we asked the CBC Life team, our friends, we trawled the web for traces of the practice, and even did some field research by sending fake texts of our own. Here are our findings.

The simplest and most common form of accidental text is the deniable ping. You want to open lines of communication with someone, but don't want to be the one to make the first move. You ping them to elicit a response, upon which a conversation can then be built. It is something like purposely running into someone "by coincidence". One of the most popular methods is to send out a blank text. For the purposes of research, I tried sending out a blank text with someone I hadn't spoken to in a few weeks and had an answer within a few hours. Attention grabbed, conversation re-ignited.

The second level of accidental texting is "inception": planting information in the recipient's mind and/or to elicit a specific response. This is what Funkhouser is trying to do in the Curb clip above, and therefore we thought we should test it in the field. Accidental texting is most useful when the message will be more effective if it seems unintentional. This is true of compliments: direct compliments are usually sharply discounted, but indirect compliments may be accepted at face value. Thus, one Life producer well-known for throwing around compliments tried to deliver an indirect compliment by masking it as an accidental text.

What about the wider world? How do our office experiments compare to the experience and opinions of people on the internet? I discovered three things when researching "accidental" texting online. The first is that it is surprisingly common. Both men and women fext. Threads on accidental texting exist on several discussion boards, as do other articles, and even satirical pieces on the practice which means that enough people do it to understand what it is.

The second is that by far the most common reason for doing so is to manipulate romantic prospects or exes. In fact, there is little online evidence of fexting for any other reason. We found that blank or nonsense texts are common and widely used. Many also attempt "inception" by using the body of the text to imply something their activities, to show that they are fun interesting people ("yeah, that was so crazy last night! I can't believe Drake actually turned up!") or to provoke jealousy in their targets ("thanks for a lovely night. Miss you already. xx").

One interesting and common ploy to cover one's tracks is to address a person with a similar name to the person you are trying to reach, to make it plausible that you could have made a mistake in your contacts list. So if you want to fext Janet, you write "Hey Jason…"

The third thing, which is probably the most important, is that "accidental" texts are frequently detected. Commenters seem to be split between a majority who think fexting is always transparent and embarrassing, and a minority who believe that it can work if used very sparingly. In general, the Internet's overwhelming advice is that your targets are most likely going to see through the ploy making you look silly. If you are lucky they will just believe it was an accident, and ignore it. Either way, you are not getting what you want out of the text.

So what are we to make of this? On the one hand, "accidental" texting should work. We've all sent accidental texts. It undoubtedly happens. Plus, since it is by text, this technique will not carry any of the usual physical tells of lying like shifting eyes, fidgety feet, and changes in voice. But on the other hand, when we hear about specific examples as in the Curb scene or real life jealousy traps, they just seem ludicrously obvious.

People are generally equipped with natural lie detectors that operate at varying levels of sensitivity. Romantic relations are one of those areas where people are most inclined to lie and, therefore, also most suspicious that they are being manipulated. They are most sensitive in situations where people think others are most likely to try to deceive them. In online forums, "accidental texting" is most frequently discussed in relation to romantic relations, and it was when romantic motives were in play that people were sussed. In other words, if someone suspects you are interested in them romantically, they will interpret all of your actions in light of that fact. So you are unlikely to get away with hiding this fact behind a thin veil of fext.

In addition to the context of the relationship, the message itself can cast suspicion on your motives. Any text which leads the target into an action that is to the sender's benefit is automatically suspect, as is any that tries clumsily to cover its tracks with a fake but similarly-named recipient. Marty Funkhouser's text is a perfect example of an "accidental" text that is too just-so to be believable. It it clearly aimed at getting his girlfriend to do exactly what he has been trying but failing to get her to do.

"Accidental" texting seems to suffer from the same weakness as lying in general: it is most difficult to do just at the times people most want to do it. People are most likely to see through "accidental" texts when they are used for their most common purpose (romantic manipulation) and when they yield the most benefit (by leading the target to a specific conclusion).

However, it also points to the times when fake texting is most likely to succeed. Your fake texts are most likely to have the desired effect when trust is high and they don't feel like you are trying to make them do anything they don't want to do. Blank texts probably work if and when that person the target was open to being contacted anyway. This makes the "accidental" part superfluous, since a direct text would work just as well (without the risk of embarrassment). It turns out that the best time subterfuge is where there is no discernable (to others) reason for subterfuge. However, in those cases, it is also likely that a straightforward "what's up?" would have worked just as well.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.