Getting Their (Wireless) Lines Crossed
He Twitters but She Texts? Sigh. These Days, High-Tech Options Can Short-Circuit a Romance.

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

The relationship did not end because of Elizabeth Fishkin's boyfriend's text aversion.

On the other hand, it didn't exactly help.

Like the time when they were supposed to meet for dinner, and Fishkin texted him to say she was waiting at the restaurant bar. Thirty minutes later, she finally spotted him. Standing outside. He'd never gotten the message -- didn't even realize what his cellphone's buzzing had signified. No disrespect intended; he just wasn't a texting kind of guy.

But Fishkin, who works in advertising, is a texting kind of gal. Nothing obsessive, maybe five times a day -- she just likes the ease, the directness, the speed of the medium. Texting is her language.

"I thought, if this is going to be such an issue . . . " she says.

Months later: another date, another guy, another technological incompatibility. This time she was out with someone who wanted to text . . . everyone.

"He kept talking about Twitter." Fishkin rolls her eyes. "Ashton Kutcher. Twitter, Twitter, Twitter."

Can a texter love a Twitterer? Can star-crossed lovers overcome wire-crossed gadgets? Can these relationships be saved?

Mary: He asked me out!

Nathan: He called?

Mary: Well . . .

Josh: He e-mailed!

Mary: Uh, no.

Nathan: What? He left his calling card with your lady in waiting?

Mary: He MySpaced me.

-- "He's Just Not That Into You"

The process of asking someone on a date can historically be described as such: Twenty years ago, you either did it face-to-face or picked up the phone.

Today, you can be a phone person, an e-mail person, a text person, a Skype person, a Facebook wall person, a Twitter person, an instant-messaging person, or you can just stare creepily into your webcam like that manga girl on YouTube.

Each form of communication has its own followers and rules, which means dating today is a law of inverse proportions: As ways to communicate increase, the chances you will date someone who speaks your technological language decrease.

Sexual compatibility, out! Textual compatibility, in!

"If you text me twice without returning my phone calls, that's it," says Liberty Jones, a Washington publicist.

Jones once went out with a guy who seemed great -- when they actually managed to connect. "I would call him, then he would text back and say, 'Let's touch base,' " says Jones. "But for him, 'touching base' just meant more texting." As if each text counted as its own little date.

And if a suitor "texts with acronyms, it's done," Jones says. " 'LOL'? What? Is it so hard to give me a 'ha-ha'?"

Dino Misetic could have handled acronyms; it was the volume of his girlfriend's text messages that suffocated their relationship. "The longer we dated, the more she texted," says Misetic, remembering how he'd upped his monthly limit from 500 to 600 and then 700 texts during the course of their three-month relationship. "She would say over and over again how much she liked me," but only via text message.

Those abbreviated declarations of affection ultimately went nowhere. Misetic doesn't do pithy, and he couldn't manage to get her on the phone where his own, more eloquent style might have excelled.

In another time, with fewer technological options, the members of these doomed couples might have been soul mates. Now, Jones and Misetic will never know. After all, a bird may love a fish, but where would they live? And how would they notify each other to meet inside the restaurant?

This is not a universal problem.

"People in their 30s are the hardest hit," says Kelli Lawless, who runs the blog Dating and Mating in America and has received many frustrated e-mails from the technologically incompatible. Members of the 40-plus population are safe -- by habit, they all mostly reach for the phone. And anyone under 25 is likely to be fluent in multiple tech languages. But 30-somethings, Lawless says, have taken independent, a la carte approaches to their communication preferences.

"I am in a relationship with someone," confides John Mercurio, "who is genetically incapable of using a cellphone." Mercurio confides this during happy hour with a buddy. His boyfriend, he says, will use a land line or e-mail. But in the evenings, when the boyfriend is on his way home and Mercurio is trying to figure out dinner plans: "I sit. I literally sit. I watch Katie Couric, then I watch Brian Williams, then I watch Billy Bush."

"Really?" Mercurio's friend, Marc Houston, is shocked by the cellphone revelation. "I did not know this."

"It doesn't really matter," Mercurio says. "Except when it does."

"No cellphone?" Houston cannot fathom a relationship like this. He would never, for example, date someone who refused to text. And someone who was still on MySpace instead of Facebook? "Oh, that would be an automatic reject," Houston says. "It's kind of like a unibrow." He pauses. "Maybe that's why I'm single."

* * *

Either Houston is the shallowest man in the world or he intuitively gets the essential truth of relationships: We all want partners who understand us. We want people who appreciate not only what we say but how we say it. Facebook and MySpace, after all, would seem interchangeable only to people who had never used either one.

Someone who builds ideas like pyramids over the course of 10-paragraph e-mails may not have the same appreciation for the skill required to send a saucy, 23-character text message. Someone who excels at such brevity may not understand the point of long, meandering phone conversations or of IM exchanges where people type over each other rather than waiting for a response.

At Claremont Graduate University in California, researchers are beginning to examine how people's personality traits influence their preferred types of digital communication. The study, conducted by David Dunaetz, has thus far surveyed some 300 participants nationwide.

As expected, extroverts went for "richer" forms of communication like phone or instant messaging, which provide the immediate back and forth that psychologists dub "synchronicity." So did amiable people, and those who were adventurous. Introverts and the easily stressed preferred e-mail -- the lowest on the richness scale -- because it lets them control what they say and when they say it. So did the cautious. E-mail "slows communication down by a factor of five," Dunaetz says. "What you can learn in one day face to face will take five days via e-mail."

That just might explain why extroverted, adventurous phoners get so offended by texters. When you meet someone you like, shouldn't you want to speed up, not slow down?

And why astute, methodical e-mailers get overwhelmed by phoners. We have nothing but time, Mr. Pushy. What's the rush?

As with almost anything else that causes discord in relationships, technological incompatibility is a sign, not a problem.

Sometimes it's a sign that things are going well.

Katie Brokaw prides herself on composing amazingly complex e-mails. She'll write quizzes, she'll do top 10 lists. "I feel like I can best be demonstrative of my sense of humor when I have the space," says the graduate student. She'll send these works of art off to a guy she likes -- and he'll respond with a two-word text.

"The thing is, 70 percent of texts from him make me laugh out loud," Brokaw says. "He can come back so quickly." She has learned to be impressed, not annoyed, by his brief responses.

This summer, however, brings a new challenge. Brokaw's friend will be going on assignment to a place with no cellphone reception or Internet access. After spending this time navigating the perils of modern communication, the pair will have to correspond . . . by letter. "It is," she says, "so 1890s."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company