Nowadays, short messages are famous all over the world, especially among young people. Short Message Service (SMS) is a new communicational tool that combines the functions of mobile phone and pager. According to the statistics from Global GPS Association, the total number of SMs has reached 2300 billion in 2008, and China accounts for one third of them, soaring to 700 billion. SM is regarded as a convenient, informational medium for conveying messages that conforms well to human needs. As a modern communication tool, SM has many advantages which are absent in other communication medias. For example, SM enables dumb people to communicate freely with healthy people; SM makes no noise which may bother others; SM protects privacy, because no third party knows the content of SM conversation.
However, the characteristics of SM language also bring negative effects to people’s life. People find that SM is not so powerful and pleasant, and it can be easily misunderstood. With the help of linguistic approaches, factors that are responsible for the misunderstanding of SM are analyzed in this paper. Firstly, SM language violates the cooperative principle. Secondly, in contrast with face-to-face conversations, SM lacks body language, facial expressions. Thirdly, SM language is more casual than written language. In conclusion, this paper suggests some solutions to the related problem.
Key words: short massage or SM, misunderstanding, cooperative principle, body language, facial expression, written language
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I. The vulnerability of SM to misunderstanding from the perspective of the cooperative principle
The process of sending SM is so easy and informal that people treat it as they do conversations. For a conversation to be successful, in most social contexts, the participants need to feel they are contributing something to it and are getting something out of it. The success of a conversation depends not only on what speakers say but on their whole approach to the interaction. People adopt a “cooperative principle” when they communicate with each other: they try to get along with each other by following certain conversational “maxims”.
The maxim of quality
The maxim of quantity
The maxim of relevance
The maxim of manner
In short, these maxims specify what participants have to do in order to converse in a maximally efficient, rational, cooperative way: they should speak sincerely, relevantly and clearly, while providing sufficient information. But the use of terms principle and maxim does not mean that the cooperative principle and its maxims will be followed by everybody all the time. For SM users, violation of maxims is done passively.
Then let us have a look at the following short messages recorded in the author’s mobile phone.
No.1. A: “在忙吗?”—9:40 pm
(Conversation started, but A’s purpose is confusing)
No.2. B: “不是很忙，怎么啦?”—9:41 pm
(Actually B was very busy in his essay, but B inferred that A must have something important to tell.)
No.3. A: “你在社团工作的时候，拉赞助失败过吗?”—9:46 pm
(It takes A 5 minutes to respond. He attempts to make his words appropriate. B has to suspend his work and wait for a direct answer. But this answer seems so irrelevant.)
No.4. B: “没”—9:47 pm
(B tries to concentrate on his work, so he responds briefly. A is quite frustrated by the failed negotiation and needs someone to comfort him. The single word “No” makes him think that if B is not busy, how B could be so cold.)
No.5. A: “对不起，我以为你有失败过，那么，晚安了.”—9:49 pm
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(Conversation has to be ended up unpleasantly)
No.6. B: “晚安.”—9:50 pm
(B is still unaware of A’s intention. He can do nothing but end the conversation.)
The two participants of this short conversation violate the four maxims.
No.1 violates M of quantity. He says too little. He should state his purpose clearly.
No.2 violates M of quality. He says something that is false, but he has to.
No.3. However, since it is a SM conversation, A and B could not see each other. B is actually in a hurry and he wants to go to the topic directly, but A wants a euphemistic way. Here SM is not powerful enough to connect the states of mind of the two persons.
No.4 also violates M of quantity. B is supposed to be considerate.
No.5 violates M of manner. Two sentences seem not orderly.
Although the two participants of this short conversation do not violate maxims deliberately, their words are misunderstood. However, in our daily conversation, the implicatures of words are easily deduced. So why does the violation of cooperative principle in SM fail to enable people to work out the exact implicatures? There must be some other factors contributing to the understanding of words. We shall further discuss this point in the following section.
II. The deficiency of SM in contrast with face-to-face conversation
Obviously, SM lacks body language and facial expressions. Most people may not be aware of the importance of them when they communicate with each other, because they do it subconsciously. Movements of the face and body can give clues to a person’s personality and emotional state. The face, in particular, signals a wide range of emotions, such as fear, happiness, sadness, anger, surprise and so on. Patterns of eye contact show who is talking to whom; facial expression provides feed-back to the speaker, expressing such meanings as puzzlement or disbelief; and a body posture conveys a person’s attitude towards the interaction.
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While SM only provides its recipient scores of characters, the sender’s facial expression or even his attitude towards what he said only depends on the recipient’s personal imagination. The real meaning of SM and intention thus are often misunderstood.
III. The casualness of SM in contrast with written language
However, we cannot simply say the written form of speech is less powerful in communication. One thing that differs SM language from letters, and E-mail is the casualness of SM. SM is often processed under a random condition. The user may do it while he is having lunch, taking a walk, reading books, talking to others, or watching TV, etc. He could not focus all his attention on writing what he wants to say. He has to do it with little thought. Besides, sometimes, one SM user may send messages to three others or more at the same time. The overloaded user has to speed it up, and the quality of SM decreases. But when people write letters, they are much more considerate. Unlike SM, sending letters is demanding, since we cannot write letters wherever and whenever we like. Once a letter is sent, little chance left for the addresser to explain it.
Firstly, the participants in written interaction cannot usually see each other, and they thus cannot rely on the context to help make clear what they mean, as they would when speaking. As a consequence, writing avoids words whose meaning rely on situation (such as this one, over there).
This is out of the question in SM. SM users assume that the other side is always ready for reception of SM (actually, it is quite normal that the recipient is very busy), and that the feedback would come immediately. But SM is not time-bound, and the situation in which both participants are present is rare.
Besides, written language tends to be more formal than SM language. Different people have developed their own SM habit or style. Some people frequently use punctuations, such as “:-)”, “:-(”, “:-=”, “:-*”; some use capitalized word for example “Oh, TMD”, “I’ll T you” to express special meanings. These words, on one hand, make SM language vivid, but on the other hand, language barrier is formed. Not everybody could understand these fashionable words. People, especially those who seldom send messages to another, find themselves trapped by these personally coined words and expressions.
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Mobile-based SM is not bad itself. Like the television, SM is also strongly criticized for its disadvantage. If we use it appropriately, it makes our life better. Here, several solutions are suggested.
(1) Before sending messages, thinking about the recipient’s situation is helpful. If time is not right, SM might bother the recipient.
⑵The language of SM must be well chosen. We can use fashion words or coined words when we send messages to an intimate friend, because we share the same environment, and these words will work perfectly in communication. But if the recipient is not so familiar, we’d better use formal words. In other words, how we send messages should be based on the specific recipient.
For the recipient, there are some other suggestions which might be helpful.
(1) If we are doing something very important, such as giving a lecture or having a conference, in which disturbance is not allowed, we had better shut off our mobile phones. Once a person tries to send us a short message, he or she may quickly find that the recipient is not available at that moment. Thus, waiting and further guessing can be avoided.
⑵However, it is inevitable to come across unpleasant words in SM, in terms of both language and content. We should bear this in mind that most people would send SM with little thoughts. If we do feel quite bothered, we should call the sender and make the matter clear as quickly as possible.
Halliday. M.A.K. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold, 1985.
胡壮麟. 语言学教程. 北京：北京大学出版社，2001