A Glimpse into the Unwritten Rules of Texting

January 20, 2020

by Niki Tonks, marketing manager, Goddard School of Business & Economics


A common text conversation between a mother and her teenage son may start something like this: 

SON:      Sarah took the art class I’m taking so she’s gonna help me with my art assignment after work and then I’ll be home 
MOM:     Ok. 
SON:     Is that okay 
MOM:     Ya 

This seems like a fairly straightforward conversation, unless you are the teenager on the other end who is acutely sensitive to the timing of the response, the spelling of the word “Ok,” including a period, the short answers, and the lack of nonverbal cues.  The conversation continues: 

SON:     Are you mad? 
MOM:    Not at all. Just answering you. 
SON:    Okay, you’re just texting real short answers and in teen talk that means someone is mad. 

This was an actual conversation I had with my 18 year old son, but not the first where a misunderstanding occurred because of the unwritten rules or expectations I wasn’t aware of, and was obviously breaking. 

Generational differences have been studied for years and do affect an individual’s preference, style and understanding in communication.  But, as text messaging becomes increasingly more common between family, friends, and now business associates and clients, the risk of misunderstanding increases further without face-to-face, nonverbal cues and traditional full-dialogue exchange. And now, we add another level of complexity to digital communication with this notion of unwritten rules in punctuation, spelling, capitalization and emoji use.

With a handful of fresh, personal digital miscommunication experiences on my mind, I conducted a small research project to see just if this notion of unwritten rules and generational expectations were actually manifesting more broadly and indeed, I found some interesting, hilarious and somewhat concerning results as the newest generation enters the workforce. 

The survey included 13 texting behavior questions with 77 individuals responding fairly evenly across the generational groups ages 18-67. 

The original question sparking the study asked if there were different unwritten expectations or rules in communication and how these rules affect cross-generational communication. The findings suggested that there are several expectations based on time, emojis, spelling, punctuation, word choice, and communication partner.  And indeed, Gen Z (born after 1995) does not like the use of the word “ok” as I found out unintentionally with my son. To follow are just a few of the unwritten expectations and outcomes that could be inferred from the study. Perhaps this will shed some light on your personal and professional communication as well:

  1. The larger the age gap between communication partners, the bigger the difference in expectations in texting.
  2. Clear communication using proper punctuation and simple emojis (usually faces expressing emotion) are the least misinterpreted across generations and the most preferred.
  3. Communication using more complex emojis were the most misinterpreted across generations due to double meanings (yes, nearly all emojis can have an alternate and sometimes unexpected meaning - so be careful!).
  4. Gen Z uses the most emojis in text communication, but doesn’t always appreciate them in return when the intention isn’t clear. 
  5. When emotions or meanings aren’t clear in the context of a text, all generations tended to feel negatively, however, Boomers (born between 1946 - 1965) expressed the least negativity attributing the lack of clarity less to intention and more to the medium of delivery. 
  6. For older generations, emojis are used for fun and emotion, for younger generations, emojis are used for both feelings and as actual context. For example, older generations may use emoji in the place of a word because it is cute and clever (like an object, food, place or picture) whereas younger generations attach different meanings to emojis other than the face value of the image. 
  7. Gen Z does not like short responses without clarity where emotions are unclear. Shortened words without context like k, ok, okay, ya, yes, yup, sure, fine, bye, gb, and whatever are cause for concern. A respondent summed it up well, “Any abbreviated responses like K or (thumbs up emoji) can be construed as a simple fast response or can be taken as that person doesn't care or is mad at you.” According to the responses, this seems to depend on the previous message context as well.
  8. Across generational lines, the use of too many acronyms can make a person look uneducated.  This may be interesting for the generation just about to come into the workforce, ages 15-18 because they tend to communicate in full acronyms at times.
  9. Like Gen Z, Gen X (born between 1966 - 1978) also reported negative feelings with short responses without clarity where emotions are unclear. Shortened words without context like k, ok, okay, ya, yes, yup, sure, fine, bye, gb, and whatever are cause for concern. This could be that Gen Xers are the parents of Gen Z and have been more educated on and are thus more sensitive to these shortened words. 
  10. Boomers most prefer full sentences and may infer a negative connotation with acronyms and lack of proper communication.
  11. Boomers do not generally understand double meanings (unwritten rules) of capitalization, punctuation, timing or emoji use. There is little expectation surrounding emojis other than if they seem to be clearly representative of what they look like.  They are less likely to understand multiple meanings and may use them or interpret them straight forward.

The bottom line is that as the younger, digital natives move into the workforce, we need to not only prepare them for communication expectations of their older colleagues, but we also need to spark and continue the conversation with more senior positions to understand, accept and even start to adapt in certain ways to the younger generations’ expectations as well. 

And when it comes to “assuming” in digital communication with emotion, emoji meaning and unwritten expectations, we all know the adage, so be clear and please, don’t use emojis unless you know ALL the meanings, you never know what you might be saying! 


Niki Tonks joined the Goddard School of Business & Economics in the Fall of 2016 as the School’s first Marketing Manager. Before joining the team, she spent 15 years in small business development gaining valuable boots-on-the-ground experience in strategic marketing execution, public relations campaigns, brand establishment, local, online and international sales, government negotiations, social media engagement as well as process and procedure creation and implementation. 

In sales, she’s personally acquired over 400 local and international clients including big names like Mitsubishi, The Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria & Tuberculosis, and Boeing and has closed deals in excess of $2 million. Niki’s efforts in public relations have generated her represented organizations over 25 earned media spots and 15 major local and national awards.

As an Alumna of Weber State University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in communication; public relations, Niki is ecstatic to bring her education and experience back to the place where it all began.