The Future

Do you have the mental/emotional bandwidth to read this essay?

The “pre-written considerate text message script” should not be a stand-in for true communication, but here we are.
The Future

Do you have the mental/emotional bandwidth to read this essay?

The “pre-written considerate text message script” should not be a stand-in for true communication, but here we are.

I felt like I was taking crazy pills. In the past week and change, I saw not one or two but three absolutely terrible viral tweets. They each suggested a script to use when texting a friend to either blow them off, initiate sexting, or, for some reason, tell them someone was shit-talking them. The concept of what has been dubbed “‘Considerate Text’ Templates” already has a Know Your Meme page and appears to have transcended from niche Twitter culture to the wider fray of normal people who use Twitter and Instagram in healthier amounts. These templates are no longer only for the extremely online. Here they are, in case you’ve missed them:

Why? Why does this keep happening? Who thinks that we need this shit? Has online/being Millennials/the gig economy/burnout rendered us completely unable to communicate like adults? Or were we never able to communicate like adults in the first place? And, most importantly, is the dissemination of this pseudo-therapy language a danger to society?

(Extremely necessary disclaimer: There are people for whom scripts like these can be immensely helpful as social guides, and I don’t mean to downplay their value in those contexts. This piece isn’t about them; it’s about those who use scripts as a way of bypassing tough or inconvenient conversations that they’re absolutely capable of having.)

These scripts — theoretically — attempt to optimize ethical communication of your needs in an effortless way while leaving room for the receiver to share their own. Each message is meant to soothe the writer and receiver, gently breaking the news to them that the world isn't perfect, that people have limited time, and, presumably, that the sender is an asshole. Each aims to help its sender take control of the conversation in a sort of “I'm an adult, I can handle it” kind of way. ([::Tyler Durden voice::] I want you to communicate with me as directly as you can.)

Rob Horning, an editor at Real Life, compared Melissa A. Fabello's “I’m at capacity” script to Gmail's predictive text feature — those bubbles that pop up on the bottom of your emails with one-touch replies like “Sounds good!” and “No, I don’t think that will work.” “Automation deprives people of choices by claiming to fulfill them in advance, or by making the stakes of those choices seem beside the point,” he writes. When we are given answers before we know the question, we aren’t doing the work to answer the question, we are trying to finish a puzzle. We’re not engaging in open-ended thinking, we’re defaulting to problem-solving. It’s the way creating and editing are “different processes.”

Whether the script tweeters intend to go viral or just appeal to the lowest common denominator to "help" the most people possible, the virality of scripts gives the concept lift and validity. It is with a heavy heart I must announce that the chance of receiving a scripted text has increased dramatically.

Any kind of conversational script like this is a guide, something to learn from, something to make your own if you are an emotionally curious person interested in understanding your feelings and forming healthy relationships. But the scripts on their own are a cheatsheet to absolve you of responsibility to someone else or to steer a conversation in your favor. When you use a canned line to avoid starting or participating in a hard conversation — even when you’re trying to be as compassionate as possible — you're not only avoiding the conversation, but confronting your own avoidance. It all reminds me of Slavoj Žižek’s line that his ideal date would be one where instead of having sex, he and his partner plugged some sex toys into the wall and simply let them fornicate in the background.

Form texts also have a preoccupation with telling people how often you look at your phone, as if that’s some kind of moral duty: to attend to your phone religiously, watching your messages to see if someone, somewhere in your contacts needs help, and then you can respond in 15 minutes, “Sorry, I wasn’t looking at my phone!” If I’ve learned anything from being online, it’s that no one cares how often you look at your phone. I can’t even tell you how many times people have told me “I’m just so bad at texting.” Whether that’s true or a complete lie — it’s usually a complete lie — the notion that you need to respond to something in that very moment, as if the person on the other line as if you are their emotional 911 isn’t selfless attentiveness, it’s codependency. You need not be the Mother Teresa of texting. It’s fine. We all look at our phones, or don’t. You don’t need to tell someone you are not looking at your phone. The contradiction is obvious.

When we over-rely on faceless communication for difficult or unnecessary conversations, we cheapen the stakes of them. Basically, you should never have a difficult conversation over text, and a script won’t change that. “What are we?” might be an important question to ask a paramour, but over text, it ends up being less of a “relationship conversation” than a “we as a couple can't have a face-to-face conversation about our commitment level conversation.” The ubiquity of tech also means we never log off, whether you're amending your last will and testament on the Subway, playing Sudoku during the vows of a wedding, or too busy to care that you're getting dumped because you’re typing with a carrot rn. These scripts acknowledge this reality, but if anything, enable it, trying to repair it by tying us to our phone even more.


Strangely, as corporatespeak about touching base and circling back enters our personal relationships, our professional language has relaxed — the start-up/gig economy tarnishes the boundaries of the typical employee-employer relationship into a contractor-client one, a fake charade of equality and dishonesty about power dynamics. In our personal relationships, the internet misappropriates terms, adapting them in ways that negate their importance: people are gaslighting instead of lying, people aren't suspicious or jealous but instead projecting, symptoms of trauma are a “new trend in feminism” (as for why that last one isn’t true, read this). This is why everyone now says it’s emotional labor to reply to a text instead of the invisible labor in the workplace done by mostly women.

This whole brouhaha also overstates the responsibility and burden of texts. Tyler the Creator wasn't completely off-base when he tweeted in 2012, “Just Walk Away From The Screen… Close Your Eyes.” As much as our phones and the internet and the internet on our phones have become ingrained in our lives, some of us have offline lives (not me, but still). Ethically, we are not beholden to our phones. We are not a text message away.

Part of me, however, feels ambivalent about these scripts. There is not much qualitative research about the ethics of online communication; what someone’s responsibility is to another. Every book and movie is kind of about how we communicate or not, but c’mon. We have already been recommended Conflict Is Not Abuse. There are only so many times we can cite Roland Barthes’ A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (“The lover's fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits,” he writes of sitting by the phone; art school undergrads who live in Bushwick: read another book!) or bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions (the only perfect book, fight me).

I’m no stranger to seeking out help for how I communicate in relationships: I’ve been in therapy most of my life and have sought help for how to say difficult things. The most important thing I’ve learned from all of it is that another person’s words in your mouth will only resonate if it’s you saying them. That is, you have processed them, understand them, and translate them into your own vernacular. You have to make a script your own. This is not easy to do, which is why I feel conflicted about snubbing my nose at scripts. And perhaps these scripts are just this: suggestions, something to make your own, but I worry with their wide dissemination that crucial part of the process is lost.

I also feel conflicted because the popularity of the scripts — the apparent hunger for them — is symptomatic of the scarcity of mental health resources. Courier News recently reported that access to mental health care, even with insurance, is difficult if not impossible to obtain. “We really see that for many people with mental illness, actually accessing the care they have is extraordinarily problematic,” Jennifer Snow, the National Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said. There’s also a staggering lack of faith in the availability of mental health services. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 74 percent of Americans “do not believe such services are accessible for everyone.” The Council reported that many patients are subject to long waits for service, or have to drive an hour or more to get care.

When necessary services like therapy and psychiatry are difficult to obtain, we are left with sad if well-intentioned attempts to help us navigate our lives. The language used in script texts doesn’t serve as therapy, but it does signify that their authors probably go to therapy or have at one point. This makes the entire exercise very cringe: it’s an inherently privileged act to share your shitty therapy language with others, to even have the confidence that sharing your shitty therapy language is helpful to others. Therapy is, unfortunately, a luxury, and an experience that is intensely personal; it is a tool, given to us by an expert, to help navigate a world we barely understand. Generalizing it for a vast audience is a disservice.

Conflating the do-it-yourself attitude with issues that require expertise is not a good look. It’s why, when someone is choking, we yell out for a doctor, not for anyone who has watched a YouTube tutorial on CPR.

Darcie Wilder is a Contributing Writer at The Outline and the author of literally show me a healthy person (Tyrant Books, 2017). Her most recent piece for The Outline was about post-normcore.