How Not to End a Text Message, According to Science

December 14, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

Texting on a smartphone with emojis.
Photo credit: Intel Free Press/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What you mean to say via text message and how it is interpreted can depend largely on the punctuation you use, according to a new study.

In an era where smartphones and text messages have overshadowed in-person conversations, something as seemingly simple as a period can have a big impact on how your messages are understood, so much so that a single punctuation mark can actually make your messages sound insincere, according to newly published research from Binghamton University.

"Texting is lacking many of the social cues used in actual face-to-face conversations. When speaking, people easily convey social and emotional information with eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice, pauses, and so on," said Celia Klin, an associate professor of psychology and associate dean at Binghamton University's Harpur College.

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"People obviously can't use these mechanisms when they are texting. Thus, it makes sense that texters rely on what they have available to them — emoticons, deliberate misspellings that mimic speech sounds and, according to our data, punctuation,” she said.

According to the university, a team of researchers led by Klin recruited 126 Binghamton undergraduates who read a series of exchanges that appeared either as text messages or as handwritten notes. In the 16 experimental exchanges, the sender's message contained a statement followed by an invitation phrased as a question (e.g., Dave gave me his extra tickets. Wanna come?). The receivers would respond using affirmative one-word responses such as okay, sure, yeah, yup. There were two versions of each experimental exchange: one in which the receiver's response ended with a period and one in which it did not end with any punctuation. Based on the participants' responses, text messages that ended with a period were rated as less sincere than those that did not end with a period.

According to Klin, these results indicate that punctuation influences the perceived meaning of text messages. Even though most of the important social and contextual cues were missing, the sincerity of the short messages was evaluated differently depending on the presence or absence of a period.

Perhaps in a bit of irony, Klin's team found in additional research that a text response with an exclamation mark is interpreted as more, rather than less, sincere.

"That's not surprising, but it broadens our claim," said Klin. "Punctuation is used and understood by texters to convey emotions and other social and pragmatic information. Given that people are wonderfully adept at communicating complex and nuanced information in conversations, it's not surprising that as texting evolves, people are finding ways to convey the same types of information in their texts."

The study, "Texting insincerely: the role of the period in text messaging," was published November 22 in Computers in Human Behavior.

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