When someone is typing, he stops… May I ask why?

I’m kind of an anxious, obsessive texter. I’m never quite sure what to say, but the worst part is when I see someone typing – in iMessage, in Slack, whatever – and then they stop typing. And in the end don’t send anything! What were they going to say? Can I ask you? I can certainly ask.

—nervous energy

Dear Nervous,

You are certainly not the only one who is afraid of this quirk of digital communication. The ellipse, one of the most common indicators someone types, aims to create a sense of anticipation, recalling the pauses in fictional dialogues or the ominous cliffhanger (to be continued…) that begs us to follow the dots, like a breadcrumb trail, to the conclusion of the story. When you see the symbol disappear without the expected message, you experience the descending disappointment we associate with paywalled articles and unresolved television seasons – stories with no end – and the lack of a solution can cause paranoia. Perhaps your interlocutor was abruptly distracted in the middle of her text. Maybe she’s obsessively rereading what she’s just written, considering whether to hit send. Maybe she finally wanted to tell you what she really thinks about you, but reconsidered at the last minute. The ellipsis is also used in print to indicate an omission, and it’s this latter usage that comes to mind when typing stops and no message arrives, leaving you with nothing but the knowledge that the words used by those three points indicated were deemed unworthy of your attention – or worse, you were deemed unworthy of them.

Personal conversations contain a crude analogy: your interlocutor opens and then closes his mouth without uttering the intended thought. Most people will tell you that at times like these it’s perfectly appropriate to ask, “What did you want to say?” Perhaps the person even held themselves back in the hope that they would be spurred on to continue. It is a mistake to see restraint as the absence of communication. Silence can speak volumes, and in our age of endless chatter, the refusal to speak sends a powerful message. The hyphenated text is more runic, of course, as you don’t have any visual cues — facial expression, body language — to guide you. And I suppose it’s also more disturbing than its real-life parallel, because in a sense the words have already been spoken. The person who stops before speaking may push off an imagined thought, but with the unsent text at least some of the idea has been articulated and exists (or existed) in the real world. If you don’t have access to those words, you feel cheated.

It seems to me that far from being a simple matter of digital etiquette, your question raises a much larger question of whether it is appropriate in all cases for a person to say what he or she thinks – as well as whether we have an unqualified right know what others are thinking and feeling. Your impulse to ask what your interlocutor was going to say partly reflects the legacy of psychoanalysis and modern therapeutic culture, which has conditioned us to view restraint as evidence of oppression or self-censorship. Freud believed that hesitation was a form of resistance – an attempt by the unconscious to protect itself – and it is still largely an unquestionable belief that expression, regardless of its content, is a beneficial form of liberation. We are as sick as our secrets, as the saying goes. What remains unspoken will fester in the darkness.

This burden of self-expression is compounded by digital platforms, which rely on user engagement and often instruct us, like well-meaning friends, to tell the world what we think. In fact, it’s hard to spend any time online without being asked to reveal the contents of your inner life: what you read, watch and listen to; your opinion of the advice column you just read; your feedback on the most annoying consumer experiences. That anyone is free to ignore this persuasion is only a technical matter. You can only be silent so long before you begin to see yourself as a distant peasant or a hopeless elitist, hoarding imaginary pearls from the masses of swine.

Self-expression has not always been considered an absolute virtue. The duty to speak the truth does not mean (to paraphrase Voltaire) that every truth must be expressed, and it is even possible that there is an inverse relationship between rut and meaning. “Words are like leaves, and where they are most abundant, much sensory fruit is seldom found,” wrote Alexander Pope in his “Essay on Criticism” of 1709. Restraint – the ability to weigh your words and use them sparingly – is a virtue extolled in the Qur’an, the Torah, the Dhammapada, and other religious literature. Many of these texts describe words as powerful tools, comparing them to swords or arrows. The author of the Book of James likens the tongue to the bit that steers a horse or the rudder that leads a ship. These technological metaphors are intended to emphasize that the words we utter, like the tools we make, have the power to amplify our virtues and our vices, and should therefore be viewed with caution. (It’s telling that more recent technological metaphors don’t describe speech itself, but the person who speaks too much — the chatter box, the engine mouth — perhaps suggesting that mechanical babbling can turn us into machines.)

I’m not going to tell you never to ask what someone was going to say. The contexts are too multiple for unified advice, and part of the work of social life involves identifying the communication styles of others, considering their motives and diligently reading between the lines — skills once known simply as listening. However, I would ask you to remember that the unsent text can be a blessing. No relationship, no matter how robust, can survive the brilliance of outright candor, and we should all be thankful for the friend who’s willing to pause and reconsider the caution of their words. In other cases, the resolving ellipsis may indicate a more subtle act of kindness, saving you the trouble of reading and responding to yet another half-baked take. Revealing every thought, sending every bit of useful content is not a moral good at a time when the demands on our mental involvement are everywhere and incessantly. ‘Sharing’, once considered a form of generosity, can easily become an expression of greed in information economies, where the scarcest resources are attention and time.

At the risk of going into abstracto, I will conclude by reminding you that information, in the truest and most technical sense, depends on a process of elimination. Every time we speak or type a sentence in our messaging app, we not only choose specific words, but more importantly, we exclude all the words we could have chosen. This was the crucial insight that led Claude Shannon to create information theory, the framework responsible for the entire digital age. Shannon described information as selecting one message “from a range of possible messages”. This is how we create meaning: through omission. We live in a universe of chaos and disorder, a world where entropy threatens to drown the signal in noise forever. The paradox of modern communication is that an intelligible discourse rests on the conscious choice of our words. A willingness to leave out what is not necessary is crucial to making our voices heard.


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