Talking is hard. It takes a lot of energy and effort, not least of all because you have to move your mouth. But the real challenge is conveying exactly what you’re trying to say. Sure, if you want a sandwich and say you’re feeling a caprese on focaccia for lunch, that’s pretty clear. But sometimes, not so much — like when you say “I’m fine” but you’re most certainly the opposite of fine. It’s a near-constant issue in IRL communication and perhaps just plain constant when texting, especially with people we’re dating.

“It’s hard to decode texts,” says Julie Spira, digital dating expert and CEO of Cyber-Dating Expert. “Everybody speaks a different language even though we’re all trying to communicate and be understood. We want to find a person who we’re emotionally compatible with, and now we have to make sure that we’re textually compatible, too.”

I, for example, like to use the Oxford comma in texts but have realized a lot of people don’t care about it (something I’ve had to get over). I’ve had people say ‘mhmm’ to me, only for me to ask if I had just egregiously disrespected them and for them to send me a big question mark.

We can’t clear everything up (I’m only one person!) and we can’t do it once and for all (because things change), but when it comes to these four words, phrases, and punctuation marks, take note of their widely understood meanings before pressing send.

LOL

If we were being honest, “LOL” would be more like “ATTBAWNWSTIIB” (Acknowledging This Text But Actually Watching Netflix While Scrolling Through Instagram In Bed). No one’s actually laughing so much as they are lightly nodding.

“Semantically, it’s a lot like profanities,” says Michael Adams, professor of English and linguistics at Indiana University. “If I say ‘oh, fuck,’ there’s no fucking going on. I’m being emphatic. [If I write ‘LOL,’] I’m just noting emotional stress and I’m amplifying it through that word.” 

LOL is used in lieu of a period, as a way to break up a sentence, and when you don’t know what else to say. “Um” is to real-life conversation as “LOL” is to texting. (That’s good, I’m coining that.) 

While we may assume that as a filler, “LOL” doesn’t actually change the meaning of whatever else we’re typing, that’s not really true. The relationship you have with the person you’re texting is going to 1. define how “LOL” is interpreted and 2. define how successful it is in delivering your intended message. So, if you’re dating someone new, a “LOL” after a passive aggressive text may not accomplish the same result as it would if you were texting your best friend of 10 years — the former would come across as a joke (when in actuality, you’re annoyed) and the latter would probably tell your bestie that you do, in fact, think their hair looks awful. 

Haha

You type this when you’re actually laughing…or do you? A well-placed single “ha” is the biggest text eff you I can think of. It’s the equivalent of the eye-roll emoji. A “haha” says, “I acknowledge this is funny but I’m not cracking up.” And “hahaha” (or more) means that you actually think whoever you’re texting with is a comedic genius.

“We know there are lots of ways of laughing, and we want to be precise about [it],” says Adams. “How many ‘ha’s’ can you use before you’ve made a parody of the situation, [which is] just as offensive as a single ‘ha?’ You’re looking for some middle ground that suggests genuine amusement, and that’s tough to [find].”

He’s right. Too many ‘ha’s’ and you come off as a single-consonant-single-vowel crazed maniac. Too little and you’re a giant asshole. Our recommendation? Default to emojis when you’re actually laughing. There are plenty to choose from on your keyboard.

Periods

When someone ends their text with a period, I immediately think they are mad at me. I do a deep dive into each letter, word, and part of the message to see how I possibly could have offended this other person. What are they trying to say? That they’re finished with the conversation? They want nothing else to do with me?

“A short text like ‘OK’ doesn’t need a period because it doesn’t mean anything,” says Spira. “When you’re in a romantic exchange, you don’t want to feel like you’re talking to your boss and when you put a period end of sentence, it comes across as abrupt.”

Spira adds that, most likely, the person sending that text with a period isn’t upset with you. They’re either a grammar lover or just texting quickly and not thinking about it. But to avoid being the person who everyone doesn’t like to text, she suggests adding two more dots to your period to create an ellipsis (…). “It makes [the recipient] think that there’s a ‘to be continued.’ It adds mystery and intrigue rather than totally writing someone off with a period,” she says.

Exclamation Points

If someone texted me a million (or, you know, seven) exclamation points after telling me they were excited for our date, I’d run for the hills and throw my phone in the river. 

According to Adams, this punctuation can demonstrate a weird, sometimes overly intense sort of enthusiasm. “How emotive can you be before people start to take you less seriously?” he asks. “Maybe two [exclamation points] is enough. If you go for four, it’s too much and you begin to blur your message.”

In Spira’s opinion, two exclamation points is the absolute most you should use, especially when you’re dating someone new. “[Otherwise, they may] think, Wow, is this person that into me? I don’t even know them yet.” Finally, I know what to do here!! (See what I did?)

A lot of this reading between the lines ultimately comes down to the rhythm of what you read and the vocabulary that’s being used, says Adams. It’s a lot to think about, people! But our best advice is to pay attention to what you’re actually trying to say and cater your words, phrases, punctuation, emojis, etc. to that so we can live in a less confusing digital world. Period.