Have you ever ended up in a spat with someone after a text message conversation went awry? Has anyone ever accused your messages of being rude or insincere? This may sound a bit crazy, but a study found that using a period to end a texted sentence could be the problem.
A team of psychologists at Binghamton University in New York conducted a study among the school's students and found that text message responses to questions that ended with a period were perceived as less sincere than those that did not. The study titled "Texting Insincerely: The Role of the Period in Text Messaging" was published in Computers in Human Behavior in December 2015, and was led by Associate Professor of Psychology Celia Klin.
Previous studies and your own daily observations show that most people do not include periods at the end of final sentences in text messages, even when they include them in the sentences that precede them. Klin and her team suggest that this occurs because the rapid back-and-forth exchange enabled by texting resembles talking, so our use of the medium is closer to how we speak to each other than to how we write with each other. This means that when people communicate by text message they must use other methods to include the social cues that are included by default in spoken conversations, like tone, physical gestures, facial and eye expressions, and the pauses we take between our words. (In sociology, we use the symbolic interaction perspective to analyze all the ways our daily interactions are loaded with communicated meaning.)
There are many ways that we add these social cues to our textual conversations. Most obvious among them are emojis, which have become such a common part of our daily communicative lives that Oxford English Dictionary named the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji as its 2015 word of the year. But of course, we also use punctuation like asterisks and exclamation points to add emotional and social cues to our texted conversations. Repeating letters to add emphasis to a word, like "sooooooo tired," is also commonly used to the same effect.
Klin and her team suggest that these elements add "pragmatic and social information" to the literal meaning of typed words, and so have become useful and important elements of conversation in our digitized, twenty-first-century lives. But a period at the end of a final sentence stands alone.
In the context of texting, other linguistic researchers have suggested that the period reads as final--as shutting down a conversation--and that it is more commonly used at the end of a sentence that is meant to convey unhappiness, anger, or frustration. But Klin and her team wondered if this was really the case, and so they conducted a study to test this theory.
Klin and her team had 126 students at their university rate the sincerity of a variety of exchanges, presented as images of text messages on mobile phones. In each exchange, the first message contained a statement and a question, and the response contained an answer to the question. The researchers tested each set of messages with a response that ended with a period, and with one that did not. One example read, "Dave gave me his extra tickets. Wanna come?" followed by a response of "Sure"--punctuated with a period in some instances, and not in others.
The study also contained twelve other exchanges using different forms of punctuation, so as to not lead participants on to the intent of the study. Participants rated the exchanges from very insincere (1) to very sincere (7).
The results show that people find final sentences that end with a period to be less sincere than those that are ended without punctuation (3.85 on the scale of 1-7, versus 4.06). Klin and her team observed that the period has taken on a particular pragmatic and social meaning in texting because its use is optional in this form of communication. That participants in the study did not rate use of the period as indicating a less sincere handwritten message seems to back this up. Our interpretation of the period as signaling a not entirely sincere message is unique to texting.
Of course, these findings do not suggest that people are using periods intentionally to make the meaning of their messages less sincere. But regardless of intent, receivers of such messages are interpreting them that way. Consider that during an in-person conversation, a similar lack of sincerity might be communicated by not looking up from a task or other object of focus while responding to a question. Such behavior signals a lack of interest in or engagement with the person asking the question. In the context of texting, the use of a period has taken on a similar meaning.
So if you want to ensure that your messages are received and understood with the level of sincerity you intend, leave the period off the final sentence. You might even consider upping the sincerity ante with an exclamation point. Grammar experts are likely to disagree with this recommendation, but it's us social scientists who are more adept at understanding the shifting dynamics of interaction and communication. You can trust us on this, sincerely.