As has been my custom for several months, I begin preparing for my weekly visit to “Kelly’s Place” by flipping–literally–through the digital pages of my Flipboard app. Here I have curated a pretty eclectic array of topics, from today’s top news, jazz, and archaeology to celebrities, design, and student-centered learning.
Because my column is about that ever-changing and elusive topic of pop culture, I never run out of topics, although some weeks produce better results than others. Last week, I came across a very interesting little thought piece written by Lauren Collister, “Why Does Using A Period In A Text Message Make You Sound Insincere Or Angry?” Although this article originally appeared in conversation.com on July 19, 2016–ancient history by today’s standards–I think it still holds up well and gives me something to reflect on this week. And it made me rush to my bookshelf to retrieve Tom Wolfe’s fascinating book, THE KINGDOM OF SPEECH (also published “back in the day” in 2016). More about this later.
Apparently texting (and its first cousin tweeting) has gone from being denounced as the harbinger of civilization’s decline to a more or less accepted way of expressing our thoughts, however brief and fleeting. And, along with this recognition, comes the realization that we should start applying some sort of literary standards to this new form of expression. Surely, the day will come when term papers will appear as texts and tweets, much to the horror of literary teachers everywhere, so we should prepare ourselves for this brave new world. But I digress.
According to Collister, who focuses on the lowly and often-ignored period, “people have begun noticing slight changes to the way our smallest punctuation mark is deployed, from declarations that it’s going out of style to claims that it’s becoming angry.” How can a period express anger, you ask? Unlike the more accustomed forms of grammar and punctuation, texting has created its own personality and expectations. So, “textspeak” and “textese,” as new ways of speaking, should be seen as “situational code-switching,” to use a phrase by linguist John J. Gumperz. This rather imposing term describes “when we change how we talk depending on where we are, who we’re talking to or how we’re communicating.” Texting is in some ways a different language with its own set of rules and guidelines. For instance, Collister observes that there are dramatic differences between “the way we talk in a job interview versus at a bar with friends.” Of course, some of us might have witnessed job interviews that blurred these lines.
Whereas written expression has traditionally been divided into two large categories–formal and informal–textese (and tweeting and social media) has redefined language itself and has made informal and emoji-littered forms of expression the new norm, with more traditional form of literary expression being seen as outside the norm. The kind of thing I do each week with this column probably seems boring and unnecessarily lengthy to those who have adopted textese as their official language.
So where does our friend, the period, fit into all this? Collister says that the “use of the period is one example of situational code-switching: When using one in a text message, it’s perceived as overly formal. So when you end your text with a period, it can come across as insincere or awkward, just like using formal spoken language in a casual setting like a bar.” And, as we have noted previously, it can make someone downright angry. Closely related to this new view of the period (or lack thereof) is the use of capital letters, extended words and exclamation points (i.e. “sooooooo,” “youuuuu,” and “stopppp!!!!”). Texting is certainly an emotion-filled form of expression and it is understandable that this new language has grown up with emoticons. Wonder what archaeologists will make of all this in a few hundred years? Will the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira pale by comparison?
To make all of this clear (hopefully, that is), Collister summarizes her case by saying “It’s a bit counterintuitive, but using formal language may undermine the sincerity of the apology; in order to convey the ‘right’ message, it’s important to know the proper protocols. This may explain why some people’s text messages seem stilted or awkward: they’re used to writing with a formal style that doesn’t translate to the casual medium.” I guess this explains why my daughter always chides me for creating grammatically-correct text messages. Yes, I use periods, semicolons, and even quotation marks.
And what about the well-worn argument that text messaging is ruining our literary skills? Well, research is showing that “a person’s ability to code-switch can signal social competency, can affirm one’s sense of identity or membership in a community and may be an indicator of high intellectual ability in children.” So, there. The jury on this case is still out, however. Wonder if the same can be said of tweeting? Probably shouldn’t go there this week.
Now back to Tom Wolfe’s book. If you are interested in the power of language and speech, I urge you to read it. For Wolfe, language is the artifact that defines what it is to be human. As he puts it, “ . . . .speech, the font of all artifacts, had a life no other artifact would ever come close to. . .Speech is what [human beings] pay homage to in every moment.” And who knew that even the lowly period had such power?
I will let you contemplate all this until next week when we meet again. And please note that I am not ending this sentence with a period, to reduce the risk of making someone angry