California based psychiatrist Mimi Winsberg has been studying the insights the language of text can provide about the personalities of online daters.
Her book Speaking in Thumbs expands on the subtle signals, hidden messages and the red flags to look for.
Being able to discern whether a person is suitable as a long-term partner can save pain and disappointment up the line, she tells Nine to Noon.
“We’ve only been texting since 2007. It’s a novel language and yet it’s the predominant language that we’ve been using in our romantic relationships," she says. "So, we meet people online and we tend to chat with them over text before we meet them.
“So, what I do in the book is I take readers through from deciphering who this stranger that you might be texting with is. That is to say, what is their personality type, are they being honest, are they lying, are they likely to be securely attached or maybe a bit more anxious and avoidant.
“I take people through every stage of a relationship – from first meet to establishing some rapport, is there chemistry, is there compatibility, to the further deepening relationship, ideas of trust and empathy, and all the way through to break-up.”
She gives tips about those aspects of the relationship and what to look for in text messages to figure out who the person is and how are you getting along with them.
Society has changed and our brains are learning to adapt to forms asynchronous communication, which is here to stay, but we can take small pieces of information and extrapolate from these, she says.
Taking insights from a large body of research in written forms of communication, such as tweets and texts, Winsberg says we can decipher meaning pointing to personality traits - whether they are extroverted or introverted, or likely to be neurotic or narcissistic.
“We can tell all these things, it turns out, from things like word choice, even punctuation or the kinds of pro-nouns they may use or not use.”
Deciding who to talk to on social media should involve looking deeper, beyond initial interest from photos and stated interests on a profile.
Creating a safe space for open and free-flowing conversation allows you to see a more authentic side to that person. Winsberg offers tools to do so.
“I think really at the heart of the matter is the text messaging,” she says. “A profile is only going to tell you so much. People are putting their best foot forward when they’re putting up their profiles. The photos may be old, they may be changing details of their life. So you need to engage them and in order to engage them you have to make them feel comfortable, put them at ease and get them to open up.”
One thing that puts people at ease is when they’re ‘mirrored’.
“We’ll do this naturally if we’re chatting to someone at the bar. We’ll mimic their body language and even mimic their language and we can even do that over text too. So, you can reply to a thing a person says and get them to expand on their ideas and in doing so you’ll learn things about them.”
Getting that person ‘off-script’ is important, throwing some curve balls in there by asking questions that will make them think on their feet and be more revealing.
She says if you do have a deal breaker it’s best to get that out of the way from the outset.
“On the subjects of kids for instance, if they are important, you might talk about your nephew and see how the other person picks up on that, or if they’re even interested in children."
Some people may not know what they want from the outset, or whether what they want now is going to play out well later.
“When they’re working off a checklist, what we see is what they say the want is really different to what they end up swiping on, and in working with patients and people over the years I will see that they continue to make the same mistakes over and over again," she says.
“So, I really encourage people to take a good hard look what has worked for them and what hasn’t worked for them and to figure out what they’re really looking for. If they think they want to be with the life of the party but then they feel a little lonely and insecure when that person isn’t paying a lot of attention to them, maybe they don’t want to be with the life of the party.”
In the absence of visual cues and expressions, text messaging can be open to misinterpretation, she says.
“What needs to happen in the early stages of a courtship is some establishment of trust and a sense that both parties are interested,” she says.
Timing of texts and the cadence of texts here is important. Is your potential suitor responding on time with a text of appropriate length? If not, this may indicate an imbalance of sorts, with one person showing more interest than the other.
“Men in general like short messages so women can overwhelm men easily by giving men a long text message. For them that can be rather frightening. I’d say for women for keep it short and for men, speak in a little bit of metaphor. They get put off when you’re a little too direct. They like to receive compliments in the form of metaphor, rather than, just ‘you’re hot’.”
Love language can be expressed through text as well, and understanding what that potential partner’s love language is will help form a connection, she says.
“Some people like to offer a lot of updates about what they’re doing through the day… Whereas others don’t like that sort of constant updating and would rather sit down and have more banter. Like sit down for a jam session and exchange a lot of humorous banter.”
Building intimacy more broadly involves adhering to principles of empathy, generosity and respect. Toxic texting on the other hand can see the opposite.
There are various ways a conversation can go toxic and create a tension that destroys intimacy or the potential for it, she says.
“The four most toxic tendencies are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, which is to pretend you don’t hear the person, or defensiveness, brushing somebody off that way. Saying it’s not really my fault, I’m not going to take responsibility. We do these over text as well."
She encourages people to use the texts as an electronic medical record to discern whether they’re used inappropriate language or means of communication in this respect.
“It could be a way to pause during a fight and think about what do I really want to say here and how can I communicate it without resorting to these sloppy and toxic techniques.”
Some of the other red flags to look out for online include hints of dishonesty.
“In written language what people tend to do when they aren’t being honest is drop the first-person pro-nouns. They’ll drop the I in the statement – instead of saying I’m running late at the office, they’ll say ‘going late at the office’ and the reason they do that is they’re distancing themselves from the statement. They don’t really think there’s an I in there because it’s not actually happening… If you see that tendency over and over again, there might be something there.”
Another red flag is giving too much or too little detail for an explanation, which are often signs of dishonesty.
‘Instimacy’ is someone that suggests a potential partner may be neurotic. If someone early on in a relationship is acting like your soul mate, way closer than you really are, it can be a sign of insecure attachment or even avoidant detachment, she says.
“These are the people who may become needy or controlling or even disappear on you down the line. I’d say watch for early signs of boundaries – is the relationship progressing at a comfortable pace, or are they talking about where you’re going to go on your honeymoon after the second date.”
Written communication is ultimately a great way to objectively look and see any concerns before they become clouded in a whirlwind romance that will end up on the rocks, Winsberg says.
“There’s this opportunity with text messages, before you’re started making out with somebody, before you lose all perspective and all objectivity you have this written language and it’s actually a pretty good indication of who they are – there are lots of clues there if you know what to look out for.”