The Pros and Cons of Fexting
ILY But You're Bringing Me Down
It’s a bad habit. I know. But I do it anyway. I become annoyed by some small thing my partner has done. I stew in that low-level frustration until it blooms into anger. And then, despite knowing better, I text him about it.
As a professional writer, I put a lot into my text missives. I’m one of those weirdos who texts in complete sentences with proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I am thoughtful about what I write, and I read things over several times before I press send. I agonize over my texts, so you would be forgiven for thinking I was perhaps working on the next Great American Novel.
So, when my partner responds with something like, “K,” I really lose my cool.
There are just so many ways for it to go wrong.
What is fexting?
Fexting refers to fighting via text or over some other chat-based app. In a time of ever-increasing cell phone usage—and especially with the forced isolation that came with the COVID-19 pandemic (mobile instant messaging usage increased by 45% during the pandemic)—texting has become far more common.
It stands to reason that not all of those text conversations are rainbows and sunshine or even just a request to pick up the vitamins on the way home.
Unfortunately, texting is not the most effective form of communication when it comes to complex conversations.
But is fexting inherently bad?
According to social psychologist Sara Nasserzadeh, Ph.D., it depends. Though she herself tends to avoid communicating about sensitive topics via text, she acknowledges that fexting may have its benefits based upon someone’s thinking style, conflict management style, and confrontation style.
Some people (::coughcough:: me) end up at a loss for words when you put them in the spotlight. Their emotions boil over and they become less articulate. “Although they might be very thoughtful,” says Nasserzadeh, “they might need time to absorb and process and reflect.”
For those people, she says, it can work well. “But even then,” she adds, “my first recommendation is for them to have that person-to-person interaction and then ask for time to think and process.”
Why is it so easy for fexting to go so wrong?
Putting aside the tendency for autocorrect to muck things up, the texts we send to each other are ripe for misinterpretation.
Without the aid of facial expressions and body language, and without the added layer of tone, our words can lack nuance. If you can’t read the emotion behind what the other person is saying, it can be easy for you to misunderstand the intention behind their words.
Nasserzadeh also points out that when we engage in face-to-face arguments, we usually share the same context, meaning we share the same space and mindset. But when we fight over text, the context does not match up. One person might be living their best life, feeling peppy and open for anything. Another might be having the worst day ever, their brains primed to take umbrage against whatever it is you say.
How can you fext more effectively?
If you insist on fexting anyway, there are ways to ensure things go more smoothly.
Take your time.
“Take the time to carefully read your partner’s text and then pause to reflect before replying,” says Nasserzadeh.
As you argue, it can be easy for things to escalate quickly, which can lead to one or both of you saying something you regret. This can happen whether you’re on WhatsApp or talking IRL.
The primary benefit of fexting is that you can take things slow. This can prevent you from blurting out something unfortunate.
So, when you get that text from your partner, take a breath and check in with yourself. Interrogate how you feel about the message they just sent. And if their message is something that could be interpreted in a few different ways. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt. The two of you are trying to solve a problem. Assume they mean well.
Consider your words carefully.
“When you do reply,” says Nasserzadeh, “read your own text out loud to see how it might sound to the other person.” Again, you’re operating without the benefit of nuance that tone, facial expressions, and body language impart. How might your partner interpret your message? Is there a way to increase the likelihood that your meaning and intention are understood?
Follow the usual rules of good communication.
Whether you’re speaking or writing, there are some basic ground rules you should always follow. Avoid using harsh or demeaning language. Try to use “I statements” (“I feel ___ when ___ because ___. What I need is ___.”) instead of accusatory language. Maintain focus on the issue at hand.
Use punctuation to inject more emotion.
“Thank god for emojis!” says Nasserzadeh. She points out that they let us soften what we’re saying, lighten the mood, or inject other emotions that make our meaning clearer.
From personal experience, a simple winky face can go a long way in keeping things chill. Lord knows I’ve used it liberally.
Other forms of punctuation can also help in this regard. An exclamation point can make something sound more upbeat, while a message that ends with a period or with no punctuation at all can feel flat.
If you have to step away from the conversation for any reason at all—say because of an IRL interruption or even because you need some more time to cool down or process what the other person has shared—say something. Don’t just disappear. Sudden silence can be interpreted in many ways and none of them are good. Show your partner some respect by giving them a heads-up about your impending radio silence.
If you can, take the conversation offline.
Believe me. I know the allure of fexting. I’ve always been better in writing and face-to-face confrontation terrifies me.
But with so many chances of misunderstanding each other when you fext, it’s probably best if you take your argument off WhatsApp as soon as possible.