One Big Reason Online Conversations Are So, So Awkward

Thinking about what you’re going to say? Then keep your fingers away from the keyboard.

One Big Reason Online Conversations Are So, So Awkward
[Image: Flickr user ROBERT HUFFSTUTTER]

Facebook, Gchat, and iMessage all introduce an awkwardnesses that we don’t experience away from the keyboard. As you are thumbing at your phone, your friend can see that you’re formulating what you’re going to say. This is a “typing awareness indicator,” which can turn a pregnant pause into something innocent–and insidious.


As Ben Crair notes at the New Republic:

Awkward silence has an analogue online, thanks to the typing alerts that linguists call “awareness indicators.” On Google Talk or Gchat, a prompt says “Ben is typing…”; on Apple’s iChat a plain ellipsis signifies the same … The typing awareness indicator is another adaptation: a way to pace a written conversation. But it can do more than just indicate awareness. It can induce anxiety, too.

This makes for a weird feeling, as you sit there witnessing your friend/colleague/lover mull over their words. Here’s why.

Texts and chats are (sort of) a language of their own

Columbia linguist John McWhorter contends that chats are somewhere between speaking and writing. Texts aren’t the destruction of the English language, he says; they’re “fingered speech.” Written thoughts get shared with almost the same speed that we blab.

This is good. Arguably.

What’s not great is that in-person conversation has all sorts of richness to it. When we’re talking to each other face to face, we’re communicating through our eyes and our body language and the rhythm of our voices–which soothes or scares the evolutionary history that’s alive in the back of our minds.

Our various forms of “fingered speech” lack in that same richness. This forces us to read deeper into the scarcer information available: what does using a period to end that sentence mean? Why am I suddenly typing like thissss?


Because we have so few signals, that ellipsis floating on your iMessage starts to feel even weirder.

This, Crair notes, is the hurdle within the chat window. One of the reasons we sound less stupid when we write than when we speak is that writing allows for us to pause and consider what we’re going to say and maybe even revise it once or twice.

Rather than blurting out ‘YOU’RE SO HOT,’ you pen a pleasing phrase: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

But if you’re taking your time during a chat, your conversational partner knows. And if you’re in a possibly tense conversation–like a little drop-in meeting via Gchat with your boss or client–then those innocent little pauses get more and more loaded.

So what can we do about it?

Just like our school teachers asked us to think before we speak, maybe we should think before we type. The politeness rules for “fingered speech” are yet to be texted.

Hat tip: the New Republic

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.