October 21, 2014 10:15 UTC

A Valentine's Day Test: Find Out What Those Xs and Os Really Mean

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: With Valentine's Day coming up this Sunday, we have a subject to set the mood. It's an interview we did a few years ago with the author of "The Joy of Text."

RS: Kristina Grish based her book on interviews with dozens of young men and women about what it is like to relate electronically. For instance, "dear" is a fine greeting for a letter, but for an e-mail, she says:

KRISTINA GRISH: "You know, if you're just starting a relationship with someone or just starting a correspondence with someone, it's certainly fine to say 'hi' or 'hello,' but then I would say within your second e-mail you don't really need a formal salutation. You can cut right to the fact that you are having an official conversation."

RS: "Tell us about some of the things that you learned from these interviews."

KRISTINA GRISH: "One of the more interesting things I found out is that a lot of people perceive this sense of hierarchy, this 'intimacy hierarchy,' which basically means if, say, someone sends you a text message, it's only polite to match their medium in response.

"So they might start out by using e-mail and then progress to using text message and then progress to leaving a voice mail, but perhaps not actually talking on the phone. And the ultimate, ultimate 'ding-ding-ding-ding-you-finally-made-it,' is actually to have this vocal correspondence, whereas even five years ago we would just pick up the phone and call, and hopefully it would happen before three dates."

AA: "And all these people you talked to, did you get a sense of whether all the modern means of communicating other than what you call a vocal correspondence -- I guess we used to call that a conversation or talking -- "

RS: "A telephone call."

AA: "A telephone call, right -- was it a help or a hindrance? What sense were you getting?"

KRISTINA GRISH: "Well, that was actually the reason that I wrote the book was because when I was doing my initial research, I realized that so many people were so overwhelmed with this technology, and they had so much of it at their fingertips, but they weren't quite sure how to navigate it. But they, more importantly, weren't sure if it was helping their relationship or hurting it. A lot of girls would spend days and days and days text messaging with a guy before he would even ask her out, and is that a good thing or a bad thing?

"I think what it comes down to is, if you're really anxious to be asked out on a date, then it can be seen as a hindrance. If you're really excited to get to know someone slowly and gradually, and you want them to get to know you maybe from the inside out, then it can actually be a beneficial medium."

RS: "Going back to the use of language, you talked about salutations, what about signoffs?"

KRISTINA GRISH: "That was actually really funny. I actually had a really great subject who said he uses it as his 'canary in the coal mine.' But he had said that he reads the way that a woman signs off as a huge indicator of how that woman feels about him.

"So if she signs off 'see ya' or 'bye-bye' or something really cute or casual, then he thinks 'OK, we're on casual footing.' If she just says 'talk later,' then he's like 'oh gosh, this isn't great -- she means later. How much later is later?'

"But one thing I kept hearing over and over again was the XOX and, you know, those little tic-tac-toe marks that women use all the time to sign off with each other. Technically I guess it means kiss, kiss, hug, kiss. But men get so confused by it because they know that it means some form of intimacy and it's some derivation of the word 'love,' but every single man I spoke to said, 'God, what do the XXOs mean? Does that mean she wants to go out? Does that mean she wants to make out?'"

AA: "And what will you be doing on Valentine's Day?"

KRISTINA GRISH: "You know what? I don't know. I'm newly engaged, so I hope we have something really great planned that, to be honest, has nothing to do with technology."

AA: "Was this a relationship born of 'techno-relating?'"

KRISTINA GRISH: "No, in fact, he's a writer as well, and he hates communicating via technology. He won't return a text message. The most he will do is e-mail. There was a lot of e-mail flirtation when we first met."

RS: Which can be fun. But we wondered how do you avoid e-mail ping-pong, in personal or business e-mail -- in other words, how do you know when to hit the reply button and when to resist the urge?

KRISTINA GRISH: "I would handle it how you would handle it in person. I think if you were to end a business correspondence by walking out of the room and saying 'thanks, I'll talk to you tomorrow,' then do it the same way over e-mail. But if you're very aloof and you're used to just walking out of a room without saying goodbye, then you can take that route, too. But I think the whole goal is to just make sure you're matching your personality with the way that you act when you're online."

AA: That was from three years ago, an interview with writer Kristina Grish, author of "The Joy of Text: Mating, Dating, and Techno-Relating."  

RS: In an e-mail update, she tells that she got married in May 2007, and that she and her husband are very happy - or as she put it in texting terms, "v happy."  

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. You can post comments and find all of our segments with transcripts and MP3s at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

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