The role of texting in Cat Person

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Photo by Makhmutova Dina on Unsplash

“Why are you texting all the time?” Margot’s stepdad asked her at dinner. “Are you having an affair with someone?”

“Yes,” Margot said. “His name is Robert, and I met him at the movie theatre. We’re in love, and we’re probably going to get married.”

“Hmm,” her stepdad said. “Tell him we have some questions for him.”

“My parents are asking about u,” Margot texted, and Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts.

There are so many takes on The New Yorker’s viral short story Cat Person that there’s a Vox.com explainer to keep track of them:

Cat Person captures how it feels to be a woman in her 20s… Cat Person contradicts our culture’s tendency to treat women’s concerns as unliterary… Cat Person is not the only short story out there about young women… Margot’s disgust with Richard’s body is either honest or fat shaming… it’s pretty delightful that we’re all sitting around debating a short story, though.

These are all interesting perspectives framed around an important cultural moment we’re in right now. Olga Khazan at The Atlantic called it “A Viral Short Story for the #MeToo Moment.”

I want to view Cat Person from a different lense: What it says about the impact of text messaging on relationships.

That story starts in the early 1990s.

During the early days of the Internet, communication scholars viewed exchanges that happened online as cold or impersonal.

Then in 1992, Joseph Walther developed the Social Information Process theory to explain how Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) could rival traditional Face-to-Face (FtF) communication in terms of emotional relationships.

Over the years, Walther and other researchers have used this theory to explain a variety of online relationships from dating to gaming.

Walther’s theory asserted that even though online forums and email lacked nonverbal cues, humans would learn to adapt to develop emotional bonds.

This theory conceded that emotional bonds may take longer to form online because interactions are less rich than face to face. But the frequency and duration of online messages could make up for that and even produce what Walther called “hyperpersonal communication,” or relationships that exceeded face-to-face emotional connection.

According to this theory, people will adapt to create emotional nuance in messages, whether it’s using ALL CAPS TO SIMULATE SHOUTING, adding emoticons :) to indicate mood or interpreting the context of the actual language used.

For example, the timing of text message responses plays a role in Margot and Robert’s early relationship:

[O]ver the next several weeks they built up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, riffs that unfolded and shifted so quickly that she sometimes had a hard time keeping up… Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did.

The speed of response. The length of the message. The presence or lack of questions. On the whole, these small nuances don’t say much. But in the absence of knowing much else, Margot reads deeply into the tea leaves.

This isn’t true of just text messaging. AOL Instant Messenger (RIP), for example, created a whole generation that attributed deep personal meaning to any number of subtle sounds, acronyms and emoticons.

According to Social Information Processing theory, the limited number of textual cues force people to “overattribute” what they know about someone. As a result, they form stronger impressions than they would if they had multiple incoming competing cues, like how someone looks or their body language.

Walther turned the idea that a lack of nonverbals is inherently a limitation on its head. The absence of visual cues, he said, could produce “hyperpersonal” relationships because people online could fall in love with someone’s mind, rather than someone’s physical body.

In a 2010 study about online dating, C.L. Toma tested this theory out to see if people trusted someone more if they only knew what someone wrote about themselves — or if they saw a photograph of this person along with a text-based biography.

According to Toma’s findings, participants rated others on the dating website more trustworthy if all they had to go off was a written description. Adding a photograph, by contrast, caused perceived trustworthiness to go down.

Why did photography on a dating site cause trustworthiness to decline? Because it introduced a dose of reality.

Much has been made about Margot’s description of Robert’s beer belly and slumped shoulders. She recoils at “his belly thick and soft and covered with hair” and half-visible penis “beneath the hairy shelf of his belly.”

Some have called this fat shaming. Others have called it simply an honest description.

Either way, it’s not something Margot had to face when she was texting. She built up an idealized view of Robert in her mind from the texts they were exchanging, when she didn’t have to worry about the reality of his body interfering in the picture. (There’s no mention in the story of the two sending photos to each other, only words and emojis.)

With text messaging, both sides can engage in “impression management” and “selective self-presentation.” In other words, we can easily leave out the unflattering parts of our appearance, personality, age or other traits. But impression management only works until those parts of us come out in other ways, such as taking a predominantly text-based relationship offline.

The title Cat Person may refer to the fact that we don’t actually know if Robert really has cats or not: “She remembered that he’d talked a lot about his cats and yet she hadn’t seen any cats in the house, and she wondered if he’d made them up.”

In fact, we don’t know much about him at all. The only evidence of the cats are his references, including this elaborate scenario created over text:

While she was home over break, they texted nearly non-stop, not only jokes but little updates about their days. They started saying good morning and good night, and when she asked him a question and he didn’t respond right away she felt a jab of anxious yearning. She learned that Robert had two cats, named Mu and Yan, and together they invented a complicated scenario in which her childhood cat, Pita, would send flirtatious texts to Yan, but whenever Pita talked to Mu she was formal and cold, because she was jealous of Mu’s relationship with Yan.

In an interview, Cat Person author Kristen Roupenian talks about how Margot’s interpretation of Robert “can’t stay still” because she “keeps trying to construct an image of Robert based on incomplete and unreliable information.”

When Margot found she was “missing something,” it wasn’t the real Robert but rather “the Robert she’d imagined on the other end of all those text messages during break.”

Roupenian said that the story was based off “a small but nasty encounter” she had with a person she met online, which made her think about the “contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks” —

We decide that it means something that a person likes cats instead of dogs, or has a certain kind of artsy tattoo, or can land a good joke in a text, but, really, these are reassuring self-deceptions. Our initial impression of a person is pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection.

That’s the basis of Social Information Processing theory. We use texting and tiny cues to form ideas about people, but it’s inherently a limited picture. That was true for Margot, who only realized after getting in the real Robert’s car that “he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.”

Robert also has an incomplete view of Margot. He doesn’t even know she’s too young to go to the bars, and he misinterprets her lack of texts as being “really busy.”

In the end, Robert’s relentless texts reveal his true character.

“The point at which she receives unequivocal evidence about the kind of person he is,” Roupenian explains, “is the point at which the story ends.”

The story ends with Margot and her roommate curled up at night reading Robert’s texts as they start out creepy and become progressively more aggressive in succession.

With the glow of the phone like a campfire, we see the full picture.

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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