There can be no text message that strikes more fear into the hearts of, well, pretty much everyone than one containing these words: "Can we talk?"
Whether sent by a friend, lover, colleague or boss. Whether delivered via text, WhatsApp, email or — shudder — Slack, these three words appear in front of you like a portent of terrible things to come. They are a vortex into which your entire being falls and spirals around and around. The experience of reading them is, surely, nothing short of a simulation of what it is like to be caught inside a washing machine.
Messages which read "can we talk?" or "we need to talk" are only ever harbingers of doom. It is never acceptable to message someone this, even if the thing you want to talk to someone about is completely innocuous. Even if you merely wish to discuss plans for your weekend away, tell them you’ve been dumped or ask their opinion on something.
There is good reason for this. Let me draw your attention to dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which acts as a messenger between the human brain and nervous system. Research has found that dopamine also drives our pleasure-seeking instincts which encourage us to attain rewards. For instance, we know that posting a selfie might gain likes. We know that sending a message will likely elicit a response. All of this drives what is known as a dopamine feedback loop.
But where there is reward there is also risk. And when we receive a message that makes us feel uncertain, it can cause anxiety. We are now so hardwired to respond to the buzzing and flashing of our smartphones that a 2015 study found that many of us feel them vibrating in our handbags or pockets when they aren’t even there.
Digital communication is high stakes. It is how everything happens now. From breakups to notice that your job is being terminated, the most important messages you will ever receive likely come through your phone.
For that reason, ambiguous or unclear communication is nothing short of psychological warfare.
Dr Linda Kaye is the chair of the British Psychological Society’s cyberpsychology section and a reader in psychology at Edge Hill University. "Messages like this never foster positive reactions in us. We always jump back and think 'Oh, okay!' because we read it instantly as meaning that something important which urgently needs to be discussed has happened, whether that’s the case or not," she explains.
And so when we receive a message saying "can we talk?" or, worse, "we need to talk", Dr Kaye says our reaction will generally be "anticipating something negative".
This makes sense. A few years ago I received a text message on a Tuesday afternoon which changed my life. It consisted of just six words: "I need to talk to you." In the months that followed, I was convinced that I had a semi-traumatic response every time my phone lit up. As a result, I asked everyone in my life to stop texting me things like "can we talk?" or "free for a chat?" because it was like a switch in my brain had been flipped. My phone was suddenly a portal for disruption and upset. You don’t know what the person on the receiving end of your messages has been through. So be clear, be concise — but whatever you do, let them know what it is that you’re on about.
Dr Kaye explains that the language we use in written communication is always important and warns that this is particularly the case for anyone in a position of power.
"It’s important to consider the power dynamic of the person sending the message," Dr Kaye explains. "If they are your boss, for instance, then they are effectively saying ‘we have to talk’ and the person receiving it is put into a passive role where they have to talk, whether they want to or not."
For this reason, you should always be careful when phrasing a message which asks someone to meet for a chat. If you're asking for a conversation, you're actually already in a position of power.
If you don't have any additional context about what the sentiments of the person sending the message are, then you're likely to anticipate something negative.
Dr Linda Kaye
Particularly in a work context, this is why ambiguous messages might seem ominous. Today, particularly in the work from home era, all of our communication happens without context. That is to say, we are usually away from our colleagues. We can’t read their expressions or body language and so we might find it difficult to gauge the tone of a message.
"If you don’t have any additional context about what the sentiments of the person sending the message are, then you’re likely to anticipate something negative," Dr Kaye explains. "If somebody said 'can we chat?' or 'are you free for a chat?' in person, you’d be able to read the necessary cues face to face and you’d have an instinctive sense of what sort of conversation it was going to be based on the tone they might use or their non-verbal communication, such as a smile."
Ultimately, Dr Kaye says that while written communication is evolving all the time, it still lacks the signals that we are used to receiving when we are in another person’s company. We can use what she calls "compensatory strategies" like emoji to try and make our meaning clearer but when communicating remotely via text or Slack we still have to "piece together meaning".
That surely makes the case for never, ever sending someone a message saying: "Can we talk?" Instead, why not try and be specific. Say: "Can we talk about your plans for next week?" Write: "Can we talk about the meeting you're presenting tomorrow?" Ask someone whether they’re free for a chat because you miss them. Whatever you do, don’t leave them hanging in cyberspace while they try to figure out what has gone wrong.
And if you receive a "we need to talk" message with no context, remember this: before you agree to a conversation, you are allowed to ask what it is about.