There was a period in college when my friends thought I hated them.
Hate might be a strong word. They thought I thought they were annoying. And dumb. And bothersome. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
This discrepancy in how I felt about them and how I seemingly acted wasn’t because I was moody or short-tempered or, you know, wanted to be left alone to haunt the campus bell tower.
It was my cellphone that was to blame.
From 2009 to 2010, I was the owner of a phone which, by some unfortunate glitch, applied three dots onto the end of every single text I sent, making each dispatch seem strangely passive-aggressive or — in some cases — unexpectedly suggestive.
“Come on over…”
Offending friends. Confusing potential dates. I could send a pulse of social chaos with the press of a button. This is a story about the power of punctuation — three little dots that morphed the meaning of whatever I was typing, leaving my friends baffled and me wondering more than a decade later what exactly the damage was from those dots. Or even what would have happened if they’d been exclamation marks instead.
At fault: the Samsung Slash, a slider phone made for Virgin Mobile‘s prepaid range. At the time, CNET gave it 3 out of 5 stars, calling it “a decent entry-level phone with a few extra features that put it just above a basic handset.” It fit in the palm of my hand, and entirely in my back pocket, and the slider style made it feel like some James Bond-esque communication device. Most importantly, it held a charge, unlike my previous worn-out flip phone. None of the reviews from the time, including ours, mentioned the dots.
Samsung didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two weeks ago, memories of the Slash came back to me during a Slack conversation with colleagues about the overuse of exclamation marks.
I decided to ask my friends from college if they remembered the infamous three dots. Surely, they wouldn’t, I thought. It’s been more than 10 years. Why would anyone hang onto such a detail after a decade of marriages, babies, graduate degrees, new jobs, new cities and all our own more important personal details?
To my slow-churning horror, most of them remembered.
“The social implications of that phone were on another level,” my friend Aaron says, after describing “the extreme anxiety” it gave him for a full year. At one point while working out logistics to go see John Mayer with some press tickets I had, he’d texted me, “Do you not want me to go?”
Cassidy, my chief co-conspirator on the campus newspaper, remembers texting about potential story ideas: “Every single time [you] ended with these three dots, I just assumed [you were] passive aggressively telling me that everything I said was dumb.”
“It seemed like I was always bugging you,” my friend Emily remembers.
Another friend, Melissa, says she felt like I was always communicating something she just wasn’t picking up on. “It felt very out of character for you to be constantly speaking in innuendo.”
Even all these years later, it’s a bit cringey to hear. I want to reach back into the past and tell my 20-year-old self to forward the bills to 2020 and buy a damn iPhone.
It was like my evil twin was intercepting my communications, gleefully causing havoc in the nerdiest way possible: errant punctuation.
In reality, technology has been adding layers to the way we communicate for a long time. In Reshma Saujani‘s 2019 book Brave, Not Perfect, she talks about how many women litter their emails with exclamation marks and emoji. Yes! Sure! Can do!
We are deliriously enthusiastic, all in an effort to seem friendly and approachable and definitely not unlikable, or even worse — direct. There is a surfeit of articles about how adding a period to the end of texts is seen as curt, the equivalent of your mom calling you by your middle name. The Washington Post, in 2015, called it “an act of psychological warfare against your friends.”
In 2017, researchers gave a name to all the weird spellings, emoji and punctuation we use to convey the facial expressions and body language absent from messaging: textisms. When you message your friend “!!!!!!” or decide between using “wut” and “what?” or stick about 10 extra s’s on the end of a “yes,” all of those are textisms, and they’re wildly important in adding additional meaning and context. Every punctuation mark, or lack thereof, matters.
And there I was sending out ellipsis dots like I wanted to burn down my social circle and disappear into the West on horseback.
As soon I realized what was happening, I tried to figure out how to fix the dots. The internet turned up only a few forum posts from other people with the same issue. With no other options, I started signing my texts “– EC,” like your dad does, in hopes of putting something, anything, in between the content of my texts and those dots.
“I’ll meet you outside –EC …”
That too, was head-scratching to my friends. “I think I asked you why you signed your texts and that’s when you told me it was because of the dots,” Emily says. “Everything made more sense.”
And so began the explanations. Every time I exchanged numbers with someone, like a classmate I had a crush on, I offered either in person or via text, a painfully crafted warning. Trying to sound casual, I rattled off, “So my phone does this weird thing where it tacks three dots onto all my texts, which is pretty awkward. So I sign my texts so it doesn’t sound like I’m being passive-aggressive.” And then I prayed they would remember.
“It was really hilarious, even when I knew why it was happening,” my former roommate Kindall tells me. Her husband, Nick, offers jokingly on the text thread: “I have ended friendships over people using …”
Had anyone dropped me because of my texting issues? It’s been too long to know for sure.
And then in December 2010, my senior year, in the middle of the most intense breaking-news situation the newspaper had ever seen, my first smartphone arrived in the mail. In the newspaper office, I frantically unwrapped the compact little BlackBerry and ported over my number, managing to set up my Twitter and email accounts before jogging back to my apartment, emailing all the way.
And just like that, a year of strained relationships ended. Whatever I texted was exactly what I meant. I didn’t hate my friends anymore. And when I asked my friends why they didn’t ditch me that year, the general answer was that they knew me better than whatever was happening with my phone.
Admittedly, I still have low-lying paranoia about my texts, emails and Slack messages. Do I sound sarcastic? Abrupt? So much so, I make myself delete the excess emoji and exclamation marks I’ve come to rely on to make sure no one ever thinks I hate them again.
I’m rarely mad, but I’m also not doing backflips over here, answering messages about meeting times and article deadlines. Mercifully, my phone won’t betray any additional meaning.