Texting by Generation

virtual with people Jun 17, 2024
A Baby Boomer's Take on Texting




When I worked as a mental health therapist (I’m retired now), occasionally a client would share with me a conversation they had with a friend or family member via text messaging. I was intrigued (and sometimes aghast) at the content of these conversations. Surely, I thought, these were issues that needed to be brought up face-to-face, or at the very least, in a phone conversation. 

No facial expression, voice tone, or gestures to help interpret the words.  No wonder my clients were experiencing so much conflict and confusion with the people in their lives!

A tail-end baby boomer, I use text messages nearly every day, but my texts are usually functional: to send my husband a grocery list, verify an appointment time, or to find out when my grandkids are available for a Facetime call. If the content of my communication is deeper than surface level, or has any emotional component, I much prefer a face-to-face conversation or, if that’s not possible, a phone call. And that preference appears to be common among people my age.

Younger generations, however, are using text messages for all kinds of conversations. 

When I looked into the generational differences in texting, I wasn’t surprised to learn that we all text. But the content of our texts, and the ways we interpret that content, differs.  

For example, according to one source I checked, an unspoken rule among younger people is that every text message needs an exclamation point, emoji, or other symbol that indicates that the sender isn’t angry.

The use of the word “okay” is especially perilous. Apparently, if you simply text the word “okay,” or if you abbreviate it “OK” or just “K”, you are communicating that you are angry or even aggressive.  However, if you place an exclamation point after the word “okay,” this clarifies that you are not mad. Emojis and abbreviations such as “LOL” are also used to clarify the emotional content of texts. (Note to fellow boomers: “LOL” stands for “laughing out loud,” not “lots of love.")

So how did we get to the point of using smiley faces and other tiny pictures to effectively communicate?

In my great-great-grandparents’ day, folks communicated either face-to-face or by writing letters. These methods took time and could be used with just a limited number of people. The invention of the telephone in the 1870s enabled people to communicate more quickly and with a larger number of people. In addition, the development of transportation systems and the concentration of more people into cities increased the opportunities for face-to-face communication.  

But it is the use of computer-mediated communication that has most significantly changed the way we communicate.

Ray Tomlinson is credited with inventing email back in 1972, long before Hotmail, AOL, and other email services were launched in the 1990s (gmail didn’t come along until 2004). Personal computers also became more commonplace in the nineties, setting the stage for online communication (and eventually social media) through blogging and the bulletin board system. Thanks to these advancements, the average person could write down their thoughts and post them on the internet, where anyone could read them. 

The first text message was sent in the United Kingdom on December 3, 1992. It simply said:  “Merry Christmas”. In November of 1995, Sprint Spectrum launched the first short message service (SMS) in the United States, and in 1999, texting expanded when users became able to text people outside their service provider and service contracts became less expensive.  By 2000, the average SMS subscriber was sending 35 texts per day, and the Wall Street Journal called texting a “new fever” among college students. 

Texting technology continued to advance during the new millennium. The release of the iPhone, with its text-friendly technology, the introduction of emojis, and the launching of multimedia messaging (MMS), contributed to the popularity of text messaging.

Today it is estimated that 23 billion texts are being sent worldwide every day. 




So how can we bridge the generation gap when it comes to texting? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Older generations tend to use texting for functional purposes rather than for conversation, and having meaningful text conversations may feel uncomfortable or even stressful to them. 
  • Older generations tend to use proper grammar and more formal language. They may see emojis as unnecessary, confusing, or immature.
  • Since younger generations tend to use texting as a default communication mode, the norms of their texting is more nuanced than for older generations. For example, short messages tend to be interpreted as someone being “short” with them. This can be avoided by writing longer messages and using emojis, “LOL”, or an exclamation point to communicate positivity. 

Some suggestions when texting people of a different generation:

  • Consider what elements of texting are likely to be important to the receiver, and be open to using these, even if you don’t understand their importance.
  • Mirror the person you are texting: take cues from the tone of their texts and respond similarly. 
  • When confused about the emotional content of a text, give the sender the benefit of the doubt and ask about it directly if necessary.

So, keep texting! But remember that folks of my generation also appreciate an occasional card, letter, or phone call.  TTYL!  LOL 😊

By Connie Powers Mohawk LPC, NCC

Connie is a retired psychotherapist and an adjunct professor for Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University and Northwood Technical College in northwestern Wisconsin.



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