Maybe Later | Emily Hightower

Issue #29

How much bandwidth have you spent worrying about the meaning of a text from someone you have issues or insecurities with?

Texting is great for logistics; “running 5 minutes late” or “out of eggs”. It’s great for staying connected with photos or quick quips. Texting is terrible for relaying context-dependent or emotional content. How painful are those long threads of descriptive language trying to get across a point? Even worse are the short direct clips when emotions run hot like “Maybe later”.

How many ways can you interpret the phrase, “Maybe later”? The tone and context can make the difference between a positive connection and a dismissal. It’s often cited that 80% of communication is nonverbal. Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, found that understanding comes from 55% non-verbal cues, 38% vocal cues, and only 7% from the words themselves. What does this mean? It means we rely on cues from body language, tone, pacing, touch (or lack of) and eyes to read what is really being said. In-person you can understand nuance such as:

“Maybe later?” with a promising wink and a soft touch.

“Maybe later….” with a dismissive glance down and shifting weight insecurely

“Maybe later” with sharp eyes, contemptuous posture, and annoyed tone

“Maybe. Later.” with indifference moving on to other things

In a text you read flat words that leave you to fill in the missing potential 93% of context. The stories you insert tell more about your own insecurities and assumptions than what the other person is really saying. Your response likely returns confusion and a game ensues of 7% understanding that can blow up into real problems or uncertain endings.

We engrave in our teenager lost rules of engagement such as “never break up by text”. Texting “When can we talk” shows more maturity and mutual respect than “This isn’t working for me anymore”. It’s an easy way to rise above the sea of avoidance going on behind these screens. Some people will dodge the request to talk by typing out more emotional content in response. It’s seductive to think we can use our thumbs to get our point across while escaping a conversation. We’ve trained ourselves through screens to lose touch with boundaries. There’s an indulgence to communicating through apps instead of in person that has allowed us to worship our own take on things without needing to feel the consequence of real connection. 

Relationships are one of the most important aspects of health. It’s stressful to connect when there might be problems brewing. We text to avoid this discomfort. The question is, would you rather sit alone and deal with the constant stress of interpreting little typed words or face the stress of actual contact? Healthy communication starts with understanding your nervous system response to this connection stress. 

When you can read and regulate your state you can face real-time conversations with skill. You can better read the other person and check your own assumptions. From a regulated state you can adjust your tone and body language to help the other person hear you, and to listen well in turn. If painful content comes up and you know how to manage your nervous system the live exchange is invaluable for real understanding. 

Eye contact and physical cues alone can forge meaningful bonds, create healthy boundaries, and collaborate to solve real problems. Even a phone call can produce more connection than texting because of the complex power of the human voice. Imagine reading the lyrics to a favorite song instead of turning up the volume to hear it. If Mehrabian is right, voice makes for 38% more understanding.

If you just follow the novel concept of asking to meet up when you sense a misunderstanding you will find relationships improving. Live exchange back and forth offers no time delays and no guessing. With this approach you also have a litmus test to know if a relationship can handle being real. Some will prefer to hide behind their thumbs. If you explain why you want live connection and they can’t meet you there they’re showing you that reality isn’t their primary investment. 

Find some eyeballs even if through a screen to fill in the blanks left in your connections that deserve more than 7%. See how it helps you restore lucidity in your networks. Ultimately the time you spend interpreting texts will be saved in favor of comprehension. “Maybe later” can turn into “let’s meet in 5”.