10/05/2012 12:24 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Some Con-Text

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. -- George Bernard Shaw

You practically have to live in a cave to not be part of the texting revolution. Once, we used to pick up the phone and call to make connection. Today, we simply let our fingers do the talking. Texting is fast, efficient, convenient. It allows us to keep several conversations going at once while doing something else.

But while none of us, including me, would be willing to give up the convenience of texting or email, I feel that there are a few aspects of it that we should look at and question:
  1. How is the language of texting affecting our perception of the world?
  2. Why does it have an addictive quality for many people?
  3. What are we missing when we use it?

Can the language of texting really affect our perception of the world? Linguists know there is a correlation between language and how and what we perceive. For example, several cultures have limited words for time because, unlike our Western culture, they don't run their lives by clocks or by the past and future. The language of the Hopi Indians has no verb tenses. The Hopi have only two words that relate to time: one that means "later" and one that means "sooner." Similarly, the Pirahã (a small native tribe of the Amazon rainforest) have no past tense in their very minimal language because everything exists for them in the present.

Other cultures have words we don't have. The Hawaiians have a word, pono, which has no direct equivalent in English. Pono means to feel right with yourself and the world, to feel grounded and aligned. To be pono -- or to return to pono if you were not feeling pono -- was of prime importance to the Hawaiians, especially in ancient times. The fact that we don't have such a word in our Western culture may say something about our priorities and how we live.

So when we start limiting our language, as we are doing with the emoticons and abbreviations of texting, what are we giving up or beginning to not perceive? What distinctions are we no longer making?

As a doctor of psychology, I know that our ability to make distinctions in our emotional language is especially important to personal well-being and healthy relationships. But let's look at a texting example: "H8" means "hate." What does the text, "H8 my BIL" (brother in law) really mean? Are you disgusted by him? Bored? Angry for a specific reason? "H8 my BIL" doesn't communicate clearly. And it may lead us to lumping all of those experiences into one. In a sense, we are putting our boring brother in law in the same basket as the terrorists we H8 for their deadly deeds and the lima beans we H8 because they're slimy. So the abbreviations of texting, efficient as they are, might actually be limiting the quality of our emotional life.

Texting can also have an addictive quality to it, can't it? It's incredible to me that, as dangerous as texting while driving has been proven to be, people are still willing to do it to keep that latest thread going. I think the addictive quality of texting is based on two things: our craving for connection and our discomfort with simply being present wherever we are.

Within the anterior cingulate cortexes and frontal insulas of the human brain are what are called Von Economo neurons, which regulate emotion and which are believed to predispose us to "gregarious behavior." Being gregarious means that we don't just need to hang out with each other, we need to interact with one another emotionally to share love, disappointment, and even humor. As the work we do all day long becomes more solitary (whether it's within a cubicle or at home) and our hours and energy to socialize are limited due to the necessity of making a living, our innate need to connect is increasingly not being met. So picking up our smart phones gives us the (((H))), hugs, we crave and the LOL we need.

I think there's also a component of not being comfortable simply staying in the present. Too many of us simply don't feel comfortable in our own skins and we don't know how to get there. Too many of us have major difficulties or personal issues that we just don't know how to face. When we stay purely in the present, all of our stuff comes up. It comes up to be healed or resolved, but it's still uncomfortable. And we've gotten so used to medicating our way out of discomfort that we are not as good at staying with it, pushing through the difficulty, and learning from it as we once were.

I believe it's important to stay aware of another aspect of texting: At times, we have to communicate something that is risky, awkward, painful, or potentially hurtful. When we do that, a wave of energy comes up in the body, doesn't it? We know that whatever it is really needs to be communicated, but our bodies are saying, "Run! Hide! Danger!" The good news is that by shooting off a text with that uncomfortable message, we don't have to feel those uneasy feelings as much. The bad news is that if we don't face those uneasy feelings, they hang around and, in some form or other, they'll eventually trip us up because that uneasiness is a sign of something that needs to be healed.

Texting in itself is not bad or good. It's just another vehicle that, used with awareness, can be beneficial. But as Charles Dickens (yes, I mean that Charles Dickens!) once said, "Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true."


Dr. Matt

Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is president of The Empowerment Partnership, where he serves as a master trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a practical behavioral technology for helping people achieve their desired results in life. Dr. Matt has also immersed himself in Huna, the ancient practices of the Hawaiian islands of forgiveness and meditation for mental health and well-being, and he carries on the lineage of one of the last practicing kahuna. In his most recent book, Find Your Purpose, Master Your Path, Dr. Matt melds the ancient wisdom of Huna with modern psychology to assist us in leading conscious, purpose-driven lives. He contributes regularly to The Huffington Post and Psychology Today blogs. Dr. Matt can be contacted via his Facebook fan page or his blog. He offers the first training lesson toward NLP Practitioner Certification for free, at

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