Spark

Revealing your emoticon side: how digital technology has changed the way we talk to each other

Communication has changed thanks to our use of digital and mobile tools. From emojis and abbreviations to how we talk to our virtual assistants, how do we talk to each other today?

Our personal interactions may never be the same again

Over the last decade, the revolution in digital communications has drastically changed the way we communicate. (Adam Killick)
Listen to the full episode54:00

Here's a scenario: You've "met" someone online, say, on Tinder. You've exchanged a few messages through the app. Then you've moved on to text messaging. And now you're getting ready to meet. In real life.

But what if the person you've already exchanged dozens of messages with turns out to be completely different than you expected, based on the way they write? What if that great "textual" chemistry doesn't translate to the physical world?

That's just one of the issues people face today as the way we communicate changes radically. Your parents (or grandparents) didn't have to make sure they chose the perfect emoji to express a feeling. They probably met in a real-life social situation where physical cues provided context for the way they communicated. But how does that sparkle in someone's eye get conveyed over WhatsApp?

"So if you meet someone online, and let's say they are an emoji user, and you are not an emoji user. They're sending all of these emojis and expecting you to interpret all of this emotional information, [and the other user] is going to get that and be like, 'oh my gosh, what do I do with this?'" Michelle McSweeney, a linguist and host of the popular podcast, Subtext, which examines dating in the online era, explained to Spark host Nora Young.

Michelle McSweeney

McSweeney said there is a lot to be learned about someone from the way they send text messages—and often that data provides insights into how long a relationship might last.

"What has changed is that the relationships start with this written component, and I think that we almost, as people, try to make those first written components first dates," McSweeney said.

There are two elements: establishing intimacy and building trust, she said. A lot of information gets exchanged, but a lot of it can also be misinterpreted, because people have different language skills, dialects, and even expectations, she added. It means people have to assess a new layer of compatibility.

McSweeney said she recommends minimizing the amount of written messages that go back and forth prior to a first date. "Try to save some of yourself and save some of the mystery for when you meet face to face."

Regardless, she says texting has changed the face of dating forever—a single typo in one text message can make the difference between getting a date, or getting passed over, McSweeney said. And that's something our parents likely didn't have to address.

Try to save some of yourself and save some of the mystery for when you meet face to face- Michelle McSweeney

As much as, for some of us, the new, text-based world of dating might seem frightening, text-based communication is the norm for anyone born this century. And some of those kids, now approaching adulthood, have been the subject of Kate Tilleczek's research.

Kate Tilleczek

Tilleczek is the Canada Research Chair in Young Lives, Education and Global Good, and she's the founder and scientific director of the Young Lives Research Lab at York University.

Teenagers and text: a complicated relationship

She says that the teenagers she's studied accept that they have to use these new, text-based forms of digital communication, but at the same time, they don't necessarily like them.

"These tools are important to them, they have a lot of fun, they entertain themselves, they connect with folks. But the downside is that they're really not sure who's behind the tools," she said. "People can enslave you with it, but you can also be liberated by it."

Young people are aware that their conversations are being mediated by, say Instagram or Snapchat, but they don't really see any alternative, she said.

"So on the one side there is this great technological prowess of the tools and gadgets and it's really helping them stay connected and feel connected—and it's a big part of enhancing their social life. But on the other side one of the young people actually called it a 'digital leash'. It's the only way now that they feel that they can communicate and it's defining and confining because who's writing and designing these ways of communication."

People can enslave you with it, but you can also be liberated by it- Kate Tilleczek

The challenge for most connected teenagers is that these digital tools are so ingrained into their social life that to stop using them, or cut back on them, would mean giving up their social life altogether. As one student put it, she said, "To resist would be to disappear."

Some teenagers have tried small cuts in their phone use—not taking it into the bathroom while they shower, for example—but giving up their devices for a longer period, like a week, proved difficult. Tilleczek said they feel their phones are part of them to the extent that giving them up would make them feel unsafe.

So they exist in this paradox: their view of technology is largely positive but they're aware that their communications are mediated and, to a large extent, constrained by large corporations.

"We need to be having this conversation and find out what it is young people need and want to know, what are their fears and concerns are, and how can we address them as a larger society."

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