There’s a virus we need to talk about. It’s spread between our brains, fingers, and keyboards, we rarely think about it, and we almost all do it. Maybe it’s harmless. Or maybe it’s corroding our entire language. Ughhhhhhhhhhh!
We’ve been typing like some horrible mix between Bravo reality TV star, child, and moaning animal for decades now. As long as we’ve been writing digitally, we’ve been sinking further into the morass of extra letters.
The heyyyyyy. The hiiiiiiiiii. The whaaaaaaaaaaat? Even the elfish “kk.” And it wasn’t until The Atlantic’s Jen Doll slapped us out of our key-leaning slumber in a recent post that we even realized we were doing it. “What inspires soooo many people to toss extra letters into their text messages?,” Doll asked. And it’s a question we should be talking about, because we send thousands of these things every month—to say nothing of IMs, which might have even lower standards.
So what’s the problem? Just like slumping against a wall, when we lean on a keyboard, we just don’t care. Doll suggests we lean because of “our ever-loosening standards for written language, our desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely, and the brief time we devote to creating an electronic message.” Points one and three are the most important—almost all of our digital communications are total thought garbage, so we get away with the least amount of verbal effort we can. Barking and shouting vague noises won’t get a thought across, but “ohhhhhhhhhhhh” is still an acceptable way to convey some kind of thought from phone to phone.
But do we need new standards?
There’s nothing wrong with the way we type reflecting the way we talk—it’s why we type “hahahaha,” after all. And so sometimes people truly do say “Heyyyyyyy” with an emphasis on the end of the word. But say that aloud—how much are you leaning in your throat? Enough to justify all of those Ys? Probably not.
But this isn’t about type mimicking sound. There’s a reason we spell things wrong on purpose—wut, oooook, heh, kk, and the rest. Words made of pixels are inhuman, cold, and electronic. They could just have easily been spit up to us by a cash register or IRS database. We mess things up, write childishly, and tack on extra vowels because it helps us humanize what would otherwise be horribly formal.
So, sure, your resume’s cover letter isn’t going to begin: “Hiiii, attached you’ll find my CV. Thanks!!” But if you text your friend about dinner plans, saying “Hello. Have you thought about what you’d like to eat tonight?” would probably come across as harsh. We don’t want to be robotic, and with the sheer volume of texts and IMs we process, we can’t afford to. Doll describes this as “a sense of common identity” we find in texting, and she’s absolutely right: as much as Heyyyyy reflects how little each text matters, it proves how weighty Texting as a human staple is. In order to make it tolerable, we’ve started to break the rules and be just short of irritating.
Staying just short is the challenge. Extra letters are a flourish that’ll keep your phone from reading like a stoic dispatch from some central command, but writing like an imbecile helps no one, and it’ll alienate instead of integrate. Replying with an “ohhhhhh!” when it makes sense—say, Ohhhhh, I thought we were getting divorced next Thursday—helps us emote, as does “mmmm!” instead of “Why yes mother that does sound savory and tasty.” But starting every greeting with HIIIIIII or YOOOOOOO will eventually read as faceless and android-y as just spelling it correctly.
Have a little discipline. Cut yourself off after a few extra vowels, a handful of Ys or Is. You don’t need to think about every message you send—what a nightmare—but if you catch yourself doing the touchpad equivalent of standing with your mouth open, drool spilling down the side, start tightening up. There’s no point in trading automaton for tween.
User Manual is Gizmodo’s guide to etiquette. It appears as if by magic every Friday.