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'Just text me'

The medium, the message and the speed of family news

Susan Reimer

1:07 PM EST, November 28, 2012

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I woke Thanksgiving morning to text messages from my sisters. Happy Thanksgiving, they said.

My daughter sent a text saying she was jumping in the shower and would be leaving shortly to help me cook.

I texted pictures of my dining room table, set with flowers and linens for Thanksgiving dinner. After dinner, I texted pictures of all the dirty dishes.

My sister texted a picture of her Christmas tree, and her kids all texted her to say it looked great. I know, because I was copied in on the texting.

Pamela Paul wrote in an essay in The New York Times recently that nobody telephones anyone anymore. Even we old-timers are giving up our land lines and our voice mail. Phone calls, she concluded, are intrusive. Better just to send a text or email.

I text my friend Betsy when I get home from work. She texts me a drink order before she comes over. I text my husband to remind him it is recycling night. I text my kids, urging them to call or Skype, but I think that is a misuse of the medium.

I am used to all of this. My daughter broke me of my habit of calling her ages ago, so the rest was easy. I don't even answer the phone on my wall anymore. If you are calling that number, you don't know me — because if you did, you would text me.

My cellphone told me recently that its memory was getting full and I had to dump some of my text message "threads." It felt like Sophie's choice. There are pictures in those threads. And funny exchanges. And affection. Harsh words, too. Lots of misunderstandings. Whose texts would go and whose would stay?

I still have my husband's love letters in a box on the top shelf of my closet. Where would I have put his texts? I would have had to erase his thread to retain the memory. Erase a memory to keep a memory. Seems crazy even typing that.

A friend's family is arguing about the family's Christmas schedule. They are doing it by text, I am sure. Everybody has drawn a line — in text — and now nobody is speaking. Or texting. There is no tone of voice in text messages. No emoticon for conciliation or compromise. If they were talking this out in person, I bet they could work it out in 10 minutes.

It was perfectly fine for friends and relatives to text their holiday good wishes; my sister sent a picture of her turkey. But when a child does it, it breaks the heart.

I got a text from an emergency room in San Diego, and then a picture arrived by text of a little boy with stitches above his eye. My grandson. There was an immediacy and a clarity that I wasn't prepared for, and it took my breath away for a moment. But nobody can see the tear or hear your voice break if you are looking at a text.

The basics of texting etiquette — I call it textiquette — are well known. Don't text during a meeting, a conversation, dinner or a movie. Don't text when there are people waiting behind you in line. And you should never text pictures of body parts — yours or anybody else's.

But it is OK to back out of a date or a party at the last minute with a text? To send a text instead of a thank-you note? Is it OK to send news of a death in a text? Or to offer condolences? Does speed trump the vehicle that carries the message?

How are you supposed to react when your text message doesn't get a response? Did someone just miss the electronic notice, or is there a message hidden in the empty space where a reply would be?

I wonder what Dear Abby would have to say about all of this. When to call, when to email, when to text and when to send a card? When to reply? When to "reply all"?

I wonder if I could text her and ask?

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com or @Susan Reimer on Twitter.com.

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