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A mom’s view of teens’ texts

Kids can extract meaning from the merest clue

Gracia Lam

Like many parents of teenagers, I worry about the effects of technology on their social skills. It’s an understandable concern. They spend so much time with their eyes scanning glowing rectangles connected to the Internet that you wonder: Will they be able to look people in the eye? Make small talk with strangers? Read social cues from slight facial twitches?

All this is fueled by alarming headlines suggesting our kids’ ability to develop empathy is in danger. Empathy, according to some, can be threatened by a dependence on technology instead of face-to-face encounters.

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Then, recently, something happened that cast new light on the situation. Driving in the car with my daughter and her friend, I listened as my daughter described a group text about an upcoming social event. One of the girls involved was advocating a particular idea for the evening’s plans and was getting resistance from the others.

Describing the exchange, my daughter reported, “So she just texted K.”

“K period?” her friend asked incredulously.

“I know, right?” said my daughter.

At this point, I was so flummoxed by the conversation that I moved outside the role of silent (but carefully listening) driver that I like to assume in these car rides with my kids and their friends. “Why is that bad?” I asked.

They turned their incredulity on me. “K. Period,” my daughter said, as if repeating it would make me understand.

“Yes, I know that’s what she texted,” I said. “I just don’t understand what’s so awful about it.”

“A K with a period is just a passive-aggressive way to pretend you’re agreeing,” said my daughter. “The single K is bad, and then the period is just worse. She’s angry. Clearly.”

“Really?” I asked, not buying it.

“Oh, yeah,” her friend said, with certainty. She saw I needed further instruction. “She could have spelled it out — O and then K. Or k-a-y. Or, she could have left it more open-ended without a period.’’ Apparently, the period delivered a finality akin to slamming a door in someone’s face.

“OK,” I said, not sure whether I was using a period, not sure whether I was being passive-aggressive, not sure if I was conveying anything but my intended meaning, i.e., simple acceptance. I spent the rest of the ride only half listening to them and instead marveling at their ability to read emotion into something as brief as two keystrokes.

Then I started to admire how they parsed those keystrokes. Could it be that their social skills were infinitely more finely tuned than mine? In the tradition of Emily Dickinson and E.E. Cummings, these kids were able to extract meaning from the merest clue. Punctuation marks — dashes, ellipses, commas — or the lack of them all carried significance. Teens can decipher large emotions from small texts. They can convey nuanced information in fewer than three characters.

Personally, I find I need at least a few paragraphs to agree with something in a passive-aggressive way. In fact, I need at least a few hundred words to convey just about anything of emotional importance.

I spent the next week monitoring my own texts for signs of inadvertent passive-aggressiveness or inadvertent anything, really. To err on the side of caution, I now use more exclamation points. Still, I’m hoping I haven’t carelessly offended someone. If I have, you’ll have to e-mail me so I can respond with a few paragraphs.

Marlissa Briggett is a freelance writer, employment lawyer, and parent of two teenagers. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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