All those ecstatic exclamation points!!!

Recently, I exchanged a series of texts about possible places to have a celebratory dinner. Because I was hurrying, I didn’t choose my words carefully and typed, “X café sounds O.K.” Without meaning to I conveyed an underwhelmed reaction, which then required clarifying texts. I actually agreed with the suggested restaurant, but my reply didn’t sound like it. Sigh.

Electronic communication lacks the cues that tone of voice offers in a phone call or body language expresses in person. Emojis help, but not enough. Often the exact tone I’m looking for doesn’t come in an emoji.

These days, when I receive an ordinary text like, “I’ll pick you up at 6:00,” or “I sent the package,” I’m likely to reply, “Great!” There’s nothing extraordinary, wonderful, or truly great about the moment. I feel completely neutral—no excitement, no elevated enthusiasm—I’m just trying to acknowledge the message in a pleasant way.

Used to be, exclamation points signaled excitement or surprise. The writing professors I had urged caution—use exclamation points sparingly. I took their advice and rarely used them. Now, I regularly disregard those guidelines when I’m texting and emailing.

“Great!” has become the equivalent of “O.K.”—what I would have said by phone, because my warm tone would make my reaction clear.

Now that innocuous word can be freighted with an unintentionally cranky or passive-aggressive tone (Typing These Two Letters Will Scare Your Young Co-Workers: Everything was O.K. until you wrote “O.K.”)

“O.K.,” can be construed as flat and potentially unhappy. It seems similar to the irritated “Fine.” You know— “Fine” said in the tone which means sonot fine. “Fine” as in I won’t argue now, but we’re not done. Fighting words.

I wish texts were only used for simple, neutral messages like schedules, grocery lists, or where to meet. But I’ve bowed to the reality that for many people, texts are their default communication, even when the subject matter is emotion-laden and would be better handled in person or in a phone call. There would be less chance of confusion or hurt feelings. So in the interest of good communication, I’m inflating my word choice and punctuation.

And that’s O.K., er, Great!!!

Opposing Thumbs

In 1975, as I sat in Miss Bloom’s typing class, I never thought that one day I’d be typing primarily with my thumbs. I’m sure Miss Bloom, ancient even then, couldn’t have imagined a keyboard so tiny that even the end of her thumb would be too large to hit just one key.

I picture myself in her class, feet planted firmly on the floor, my skirt pulled down over my knees, fingers curled over the keys of the IBM Selectric in front of me. Four rows of eight desks neatly lined the room. The only sounds were the soft squish of Miss Bloom’s orthopedic shoes on the linoleum floor as she paced up and down the rows checking our posture, and the hum of the newly purchased typewriters in front of us. (What a marvel those electric typewriters were. How much easier than the 1928 Smith Corona I used at home.)

What were my lonely thumbs doing then? They were relegated to the space bar, waiting for the opportunity to create a void between words. Only my right thumb ever got any business, the left thumb dangled uselessly while all of the other digits pounded away at 65 words per minute.

No wonder that now my thumbs have trouble finding the letters when I answer e-mails or send my daughter a text message from my iPhone. They’re not conditioned for this kind of work. Now they’re front and center, the rulers of the written word while my fingers curl around the back of my handheld device, providing support, but little else.

Occasionally my right index finger can’t stand the pressure and it says to its friends on my left hand “Take over. I’m going in!” as it darts from behind the screen to hunt and peck for the letters, thinking itself faster than my clumsy thumbs.

But even this is unsatisfying, because my right index finger doesn’t know the keyboard any better than my thumbs. The only familiar keys are y, u, h, j, n and m. And what can you spell with only those letters? Eventually, my index finger gives up and returns to its friends behind the screen, letting the thumbs take over because they at least can work together, doubling the speed of my messaging.

Gone are the days of 65-75 words per minute. My thumbs are lucky if they can get in 20. So they’re less creative. A reply that once might have been “I’d love to join you on Saturday evening. A trip to the theatre sounds like fun,” becomes “K” or more likely a thumbs up emoji, but rarely anything longer. It’s just too slow, too cumbersome, too demoralizing to spend so much time pecking for the keys and constantly backspacing to correct mistakes.

I’d like to say my thumbs are happy, that they’re glad for the opportunity to carry the torch after all these years. But I don’t think they are. I think they miss the days of working in tandem with my fingers, resting lightly on the space bar while the fingers searched for just the right sequence of letters. I think they’re lonely out there in front by themselves. Who knows? I could ask them, but they’d probably just reply, “IDK, may b. U D cide.”

 

Guest blogger and WordSister Jill W. Smith is a Twin Cities’ writer. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between; A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism; and Siblings: Our First Macrocosms, in the online journal Mothers Always Write, and occasionally on her blog, The Autism Fractal, which she co-authors with her oldest daughter.