Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

Description v. Prescription: Why Texts Drive You Crazy

Everyone has received one of those texts. The kind that makes you tilt your head or curse. Does he really hate your new shoes? Was he teasing you? WHAT IS HE TRYING TO SAY?

Meaning and intention rarely coalesce in written communication, and the shorter the text, the more likely you’ll misunderstand. Perhaps you read a message as “angry” when the sender was being flirtatious. Or maybe you responded to your boss with a “LOL” when she wanted your two weeks’ notice.

The problem with short, written communication like text messages is that people usually confuse description and prescription.

The basic differences between the two kinds of communication are obvious. Description focuses on what is:

Darren: Your sweater is made of wool.

Prescription focuses on what should be:

Paula: All sweaters ought to be made of wool.

But look what happens when description is confused with prescription.

Darren [to his girlfriend]: You got a haircut.
Paula: You don’t like it?
Darren: I was just making an observation!
Paula: Sounded like a judgement to me…

Oy. We’ve all been in Darren’s place—and Paula’s. Being misunderstood is no fun. And that brings us to texting. Watch what happens here:

Pierre [text]: Yo. How RU?
Daphne [text]: Super tired.
Pierre [text]: U don’t want 2 talk? (confusing description with prescription)
Daphne [text]: No! U asked how I was… (now a bit angry from being misunderstood)
Pierre [text]: LOL (not perceiving the anger)
Daphne [text]: Whatever. G’night.

I admit the conversation is a bit contrived. (Who really says “How RU?”) But it demonstrates a common issue that people experience every day—especially as the use of instant messaging and texting increases.

When emotional cues are missing, it’s easy to confuse description and prescription. That’s because statements about facts are also statements about values—but in specific contexts. This is important to keep in mind. Not every factual statement is a value statement in every conversation. To a clothing designer, “That sweater is made of wool,” might be an indictment of their work, but to your girlfriend, it should stand as an observation.

Luckily we can avoid confusing description and prescription by following a few basic guidelines for communication:

1. If it’s important, say it in person or on the phone.

140 characters rule the day in this era of Twitter. But nothing—nothing!—beats a conversation in person. (How old do I sound right now?) When you can see someone’s face and experience their body language, you’re less likely to misinterpret their emotion or intention.

The next time you’re having a conversation, be conscious of everything that’s going on—facial expressions, hand gestures, subtleties in speech, position of their body, etc. The nuances of communication are remarkable. It’s impossible to replicate in texts—even with emoji.

If you can’t meet in person, then talking on the phone or Skype is the next best thing. Hearing someone’s voice is a decent alternative for the important stuff.

But when written communication is your only option:

2. Don’t assume emotion. / Communicate your emotion.

If you’re reading a something and have a surprising reaction, stop! Don’t assume that the author is intending whatever emotion you’re experiencing. Don’t assume any emotion, in fact. Instead, just ask. It can’t hurt, and it will likely save you some frustration.

Conversely, when writing a text that might be misinterpreted, include your emotional intention:

Paula: (No sarcasm.) I think that’s great!

You’ll put a lot of your friends at ease simply by making it clear what you intended to express. This is especially true when you’re being sarcastic.

3. When you’re in doubt, assume benevolence.

Too often we assume the worst. Maybe it comes from a little self-doubt. Maybe it’s because the Internet is stuffed with memes and snark.

Here’s my challenge to you: Assume benevolence and write with benevolence. Don’t lower yourself to the level of 4Chan. Raise the standard and give everyone, including yourself, a little bit of emotional relief. You’ll be happy that you did, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a better rhetor.

Happy persuading!

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