I’m normally a very even-keeled guy, and I can ride the ups and downs of life with aplomb. I like to say I’m emotionally stable … except when it comes to texting-based courtship.
Some buddies from high school and I got together a few months ago for a weekend trip to Las Vegas. We’d all emerged, double-vaxxed, from our respective COVID bubbles, and the energy was high as we wandered the strip on our last night there. That’s where I met her. She was 27, a kindergarten teacher in the Pacific Northwest who was also in Vegas for a weekend with friends. We all hit it off, and the two groups became one for the rest of the night. Sadly, the next day meant a flight back to Burbank aAirport for me and a drive home to Thousand Oaks.
When I got home later that next day (and waited a bit to not seem overzealous), I texted her. I wondered: Was last night just the result of Vegas-induced revelry, or did she also think we might have similar energies?
Nervous and distraught, I couldn’t wait by my phone for a reply. Everyone knows that the first text response is the hardest hurdle to overcome. So I sought out distractions: I unpacked my suitcase and went for a walk. I did a few things to get ready for my workweek ahead as a software engineering manager.
I also prepared myself for no response.
Finally, after what seemed like a whole day but was probably only about three hours, I took the fateful plunge and grabbed my phone. Behold, she had texted back, and with a selfie! It was a pretty flirtatious one too of her poolside.
So she was looking for some game. See if I could flirt back and match her style. It was a playful challenge. She was interested. And she was going to make me work for it. That’s what flirting is, right?
In the ensuing days, we continued to text back and forth, trying to nudge each round of conversation a bit deeper. What are your favorite trips you’ve taken? What do you like about your job? Tell me about your siblings…
I thought the conversation was going well. But that’s the problem with texting. You never really know, do you? When you’re talking to someone face to face, you have verbal cues to lead you on. The opportunity to ask follow-up questions. It all flows naturally. With texting, it’s choreographed. You question everything. The timing of their reply. The timing of when you should reply. The punctuation (or lack of it). The tone. You spend all your time reading into everything.
I was all over the place emotionally, swinging wildly between the ecstasy of seeing her texts and the agonizing mystery of waiting. Every time I sent a text I worried that I would be ghosted, that this would be the text that would end it all. My anxiety would go away when I received a response, only to return again after I replied.
It slowly made me more and more worried; I wasn’t playing this game to win, I was playing to not lose.
We were now days into this texting game, and this should surely be seen as a positive development; if she wasn’t interested, we would have already fizzled out. Despite that, I grew more mercurial, afraid that I was going to screw up something potentially good. The more the conversation carried on, the more distraught I became.
Yet what else was I to do? She lived in a different state. And I would be moving to the East Coast soon for grad school. I’d had a few relationships in my life that had ended prematurely for a variety of reasons, mostly due to the usual moving that occurs after college for far-flung job opportunities. Would this be just one more relationship that would end before it could even begin?
Each text came to feel like a false summit, where you think you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain only to discover there is more to go. I needed a series of positive responses from her to move our conversation forward, while it only took one negative response for it to end. And therein lies the rub with texting. It all comes down to a series of sentences exchanged one at a time, each with their own ability to be fatal. Texting makes everything more final than it needs to be.
I told myself that if there was a chance to move the relationship beyond texting and turn it into something more tangible, it would be worth the potential agony, so I made my move.
I suggested (via text) that one of us make a trip to see the other, and then waited nervously for a response.
This felt like a make-or-break moment.
A few hours went by. Nothing. No reply. I went about doing errands, still looking for that distraction. On my way home, my phone lit up with a message just as I pulled the car into my driveway. Her reply: “I’d be down for that :)”
Yes! I was back to feeling triumphant and ecstatic. I’d thought it was going well, but I didn’t actually know until she agreed to meet. We began texting some options back and forth, trying to sync up our schedules. We eventually settled on an upcoming trip she was making with a group of friends to say goodbye to another friend who was moving out of town. She said I could join in and that there would be plenty of downtime for us to hang out together.
I booked my flights and started making plans. And then she texted back again, apologizing: This is moving too fast, she said, this feels a little overwhelming.
I’m glad I booked refundable flights.
As disappointed as I was, I couldn’t fault her. In some ways, I sensed this was coming. The irony was that this was the most real we’d been with each other. How could I fault her for sharing her feelings when I was looking for more than just small talk sent over the wire?
Truthfully, I had also felt overwhelmed in my own way from the beginning.
We continued texting and said we’d “see where things go.” But we both knew that this was the beginning of the end. Soon, our texting faded out entirely.
It worked out well for me in the end, though. I moved to Boston, and I’ve met someone, a fellow student. And now I have an absolute appreciation for getting to know someone in person, face to face.
The author attends Harvard Business School. He is on Twitter @_neerajchandra.
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