When Is Texting the Wrong Way to Share Big News?

Typing it out may be easier but don't underestimate the power of your voice.

In 2019, we have an unspoken hierarchy of communication forms: We make long Instagram stories, for example, for a beloved friend’s birthday. We forego a Facebook birthday message for a more personal, emoji-filled text.

Voicemail? Well, we can all pretty much agree that voicemail is the worst.

Yet even though we’re constant texting — or perhaps because of it — every so often we get someone’s big, life-altering news through text message, and it leaves us totally blank, unable to really respond.

Why does texting big news sometimes just feel… wrong?

According to Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of “Heard Mentality” and “We Need to Talk: How to Have Difficult Conversations,” it all comes down “quite literally to biology and neurology.”

“We’re emotional and social creatures who use the instruments of our ears and voice,” she said. We rely on human voices to convey important information that is left out of text.

Deeper than tone, it has to do with which parts of the brain engage when listening to another human speak.

Speech and the human brain

Why shouldn’t we send important news over text?

Headlee wants people to understand that the brain doesn’t process information in the same way when it’s received in writing.

She used the example of an apology:

“It’s so much easier to issue an apology via text, and we think that we can craft the perfect email to say everything we want to say,” she said.

Yet when neurologists study the parts of the brain that activate when reading as compared to speaking, reading an apology is in no way connected to accepting it.

“The area of the brain that needs to react in order to start the process toward forgiveness is never engaged,” she said. “In order to engage that part of the brain, you have to hear the words being spoken.”

The difficulty, the stammering and awkwardness, it all has weight to your brain; it triggers compassion, which leads to understanding.

Our brains have evolved to decode the human voice, its tonality and its nuances, in ways that are important for interpersonal communication.

The point, then, is not necessarily to avoid texting, but to recognize the power of your voice. To know and understand that the person on the receiving end has a brain that is specifically wired to hear your excitement and to engage with it when something goes right — and to hear your frustration or fear and offer support when it doesn’t.

[ICYMI: Phone Anxiety is the Worst. Here’s How to Get Over It.]

When is it okay to send something over text?

Now that you understand the power of your voice, it’s up to you how you want to deliver the news.

If you want a certain emotional reaction, you should share the information with your voice, which will have much more meaning.

Sending a text simply doesn’t elicit the desired emotional response because it doesn’t activate the reader’s mind.

You can, however, consider sending a picture.

“It’s different when you include images,” Headlee said. Images stimulate yet another part of the brain and can elicit a reaction closer to speech, especially if the image includes human faces. But there’s really something about the voice that conveys emotion in an important way.

illustration in a line drawing style of a large phone and a man on one side and a woman on the other, both with devices. Rewire PBS Living TextingCredit: Adobe
Our voices have incredible power to relay information. Could the words we type one day be just as effective?

You know how much effort a given form of communication requires. When you receive a letter, you can imagine the human on the other end writing the letter, digging out your address, licking the envelope, finding a mailbox.

Likewise, you know how comparatively little effort it takes to send a text, that it’s easy to dash one off in line at the grocery store. It carries less weight to our human experience.

People will only get upset about not being appropriately informed if they have a real emotional stake in your news, Headlee explained. Once you have conveyed the news appropriately to everyone who has a stake in it, then it’s acceptable to put it on Facebook or to make a more general announcement.

For example, when a death occurs, everyone who will have a sincere, emotional reaction to the death should be notified by voice. But when these people have been notified, it’s OK to let people know in an easier and quicker way.

But big news takes all different forms, and it sometimes might have to do with health or a diagnosis. It’s a violation of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, to text medical results other than your own. You would not want to violate someone else’s privacy.

How do I deliver big news without texting?

There are some real cons to waiting to tell someone your news in person.

First of all, news — good or bad — travels fast. You might have every intention of sharing your private triumph or tragedy with individual people who are important to you, but before you reach everyone on your list, word gets out. Even if you request that no one share your news on social media, it can happen anyway.

If someone’s feelings are hurt by seeing the news too soon, this is where Headlee’s advice about the power of your voice can come into play. Reach out with a phone call, or speak in person, to make it clear it wasn’t your intention to hurt them.

On the other hand, waiting to deliver big news in person has its own consequences. Friends of mine — a couple — waited to tell most people to their faces about their engagement. Instead of being happy and excited, many people grabbed for their smart phones. “Did I miss that?” they asked, worried to have been left out.

Though our brains might be wired for in-person encounters, our desire for instant gratification is strong.

It’s not a perfect system. Still, whether we embrace it or not, we are changing our expectations about how big news is delivered.

Changing expectations to match evolution

“For my new book, I asked scientists if it is possible that at some point, reading text will have an equal effect on the brain as the human voice,” Headlee said. “The answer was: maybe in five to 10 thousand years.”

Yet, even if the brain’s evolution is slow, our social acceptance of receiving big news through text is happening. In the past few years, I’ve received the good and the bad over text — from engagements to deaths — and I have accepted them as a valid form of communication, congratulating and consoling in turn.

Maybe it’s time to get over our voicemail phobia and engage again with the human voice. But maybe, and more likely, we need to remember that even though it’s “just” a text message, there is another human on the other side, waiting for an emotional response.

A headshot of Jamie Lynne Burgess. PBS Rewire. Jamie Lynne Burgess

Jamie Lynne Burgess is a writer who is fascinated by how places shape culture. She also loves podcasts, personal essays, and public libraries. Get in touch on Twitter @jamburgess or follow her on instagram @jamielynneburgess.