You’re breaking up with me question mark

Recently I read that using punctuation in a text might suggest that I am untrustworthy because it shows a lack of spontaneity and sincerity. Although being literate down to the last comma is etched into my DNA, I understand why literacy has become suspect. It appears that ever since electronic contact has all but replaced what was once considered genuine human contact, we have abandoned old-fashioned rules about written communication and have replaced them with new, and confusing, rules for writing intimacy.

Nothing brings home this point about the confusing transition to new relationship rules more poignantly than the Sprint commercial made popular a number of years ago, in which a young man and woman are sitting across from one another in a restaurant booth—both holding their cell phones—when the following takes place:

“I just got a text from you that you’re breaking up with me,” he says, looking up, incredulous, from his phone.

“Don’t worry about that, ” she tells him. “I switched to [the] Sprint $69.99 plan, so I wasn’t charged extra,” after which he receives an alert on his phone and again looks up, aghast, at his soon-to-be ex.

“Okay,” he tells her, “I just got your break-up email.”

“Emails are unlimited, too,” she says, this time with a big smile on her face. “And look,” she adds as she shows him her phone. “I just changed my Facebook status to ‘single.'”

Never mind that she is a sociopath incapable of feeling empathy. What we need to understand is that she is no less a victim, albeit a symbolic one, of our mass alienation from ourselves and from each other than are the more sensitive among us.

When I reflect on the faux intimacy of the twenty-first century relationship, I understand why the rules of written communication need to change. In the throes of a breakup, the rejected partner in the commercial is certainly not in any shape to consider whether he should use a series comma or should put a question mark at the end of his sentence. And taking the time to do so might send the message, figuratively and literally, that he feels less shocked and hurt than he has every right to feel.

Although until now I have resolutely followed the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage whenever I have sent an email or a text to friends and companions, I feel an emerging, and surprising, discomfort about doing it because on a visceral level I have begun to understand that, in person, one would never scream, “Don’t be an a**hole exclamation point” at one’s partner or whisper, “I want you semicolon do you want me question mark” into an intimate’s ear.


“Kindness” (by Naomi Shihab Nye)

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

from Words under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye