Communicating emotions in 140 characters or less

Any tech-savvy communicator with a penchant for instant messaging will have at one point in time misread the emotional responses of someone at the other end of a text message.  Only 140 characters to say what you want, a puny mobile keyboard and no ability to express non-verbal cues is a recipe for interpersonal communication disaster.

After experiencing one of these communication miscues via text messaging with my significant other (it was not pretty), I started to wonder just how hard is it to express emotion across text messages versus other forms of communication?

This first thing I discovered is that there is little academic research specifically focused on this topic.  Many studies focus on how we express non-verbal emotions, but very few studies speak specifically about how we adapt our non-verbal communications to work in the verbal-only world of text messages.

One recent study, based out of Cornell University did talk specifically about the topic.  It turns out that when it comes to expressing whether or not we are feeling positive or negative about a topic is adapted into instant messaging through four distinct ways:

  • Positive feeling people agreed more in text messages.
  • Positive feeling people were five times less likely to use negatively worded terms.
  • Positive feeling people use more punctuation.  They are six times more likely to use exclamation points
  • Positive feeling people are more verbose.  In the study, they used 29% more words.

It is important to note that this study looked only at positive and negative emotions; it does not approach the shades of grey that exist in our real-life emotional day.  Keep this caveat in mind as you interpret these results for yourself.

How does this relate to change management?  Quite simply, the arena of online communication has shifted a few degrees over from where we were just a few years ago.  Now that media like instant messaging and Twitter feeds are as mainstream as email and web pages, we need to consider how this impacts the ability for messages to be sent and received between key stakeholders and change agents. 

In addition, we have a new generation of stakeholders entering the workforce.  Our new hires today have grown up around technology and see texting and the vernacular around it more a part of communicating their feelings than ever.

In short, text messaging and emotions are an important consideration for our work, and more research needs to be done to understand how short message communication will impact our industry as change agents.