Should you chuck an “SMS sickie”?
Should you chuck an “SMS sickie”?

When is it not okay to text in sick?

WHEN her sister died suddenly in June, the last thing Casey Scanlon wanted was a series of sympathetic phone calls. Instead, her husband advised friends and family to send her a text.

"I knew my mum and dad weren't up to talking and I didn't have the capacity to hear multiple people pass on their condolences either," the New Zealand woman says.

"I actually really dislike talking on the phone and avoid it at all costs, but at the same time it's nice to know that people are thinking of you. I guess texting is like the modern greeting or sympathy card that would have been posted or popped in the letterbox. It's an unobtrusive way of passing on a message without invading someone's space."

For many people, texting or using social media messaging tools to communicate has become a way of life. Once upon a time people were urged to "say it with flowers". Now you're more likely to get a text punctuated with floral emojis. An increasing number of texts are "mobile-terminated messages" - automated texts that send codes related to password changes and banking transfers or appointment reminders from doctors, dentists and hairdressers.

Should you be unlucky enough to be appearing in the District Court, you can even sign up for a text reminder from the Ministry of Justice so you don't miss the hearing (presumably those texts don't come with a thumbs-up or handcuffs emoji). But are we too reliant on texting? Is it really okay to text someone your sympathies when something bad happens? Or text your boss to say you're sick?

Manners guru Jodi Tempero recognises the ease of texting, but yearns for the days when people picked up the phone to speak to each other.

"I think an element of respect was lost when the convenience of texting became available," she says. "So much is lost in translation when you hide behind a phone or computer, whether that's to do with dating, condolences or something as simple as telling your partner you'll be home late. To me, text messaging has a soulless energy."

Tempero, who runs manners courses in Auckland, believes we need to think before hitting the send button.

"We're all busy and texting is a great tool to use to get your message across quickly.

Her children have all left home now, but Emily Holmes is proud that the texting rules she instigated a decade ago are still upheld.

Back in those days, Holmes mainly used her mobile to keep tabs on her teenagers, warning them that they had to respond immediately to her texts inquiring as to their whereabouts "or I'd start worrying that they were dead on the motorway".

But when her daughter Laura decided to move to Christchurch, aged 16, another set of text messages took on a life of their own. When one of Laura's friends discovered she'd left town, she sent a text to a classmate that read 'Laura has gone forever and I'm devastated'.

Before long, the rumour mill was actively churning out the message that Laura was dead. Luckily, a sceptical friend rang Laura, to find text-based rumours of her death had been greatly exaggerated.

"Laura rang me immediately after that and said, 'hi Mum, there's this rumour going around that I've killed myself, but don't worry, I'm fine'," Holmes, now a facilitator working in dispute resolution in Wellington, remembers.

"After that I always said to my kids, 'if you've got something important to say, don't say it in a text!'

Texting can go wrong, but it's faster to get to the point when it does, says Andrea Calude, senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Waikato. Calude, herself a keen texter, says messaging offers users more freedom and flexibility in how they can express themselves.

"If something's unclear in a text it's easy for the person to come back and say, 'what do you mean?'. You don't have to be as precise."

Calude says texting occupies a middle-ground between written and spoken language, making it more like written speech.

"For a long time written language was considered better quality than spoken language because writing was a proxy for education. No one commended you for speaking because you learned it automatically. But speech evolves first and it's way more exciting and innovative. Academics like me speak how they write, which is why lectures are boring. Texting is the reverse, it's writing like we speak. Maybe that's why people embrace it."

Calude expects her students to write essays in formal language because she thinks it's more appropriate, but says research proves that young people have no trouble with identifying the right register to use. She says accidental texting probably causes more problems.

"I've never received anything really shocking by text, but I have sent the wrong text to the wrong person. I thought I was texting my husband about someone but I sent it to the next name in my address book. It wasn't really bad, but it was very awkward."

Seventy-something Edith Curwood has never mistexted or received anything untoward, and she thinks texting is "a lovely way to communicate". While her husband is "totally technology-shy" and she has a few contemporaries who haven't embraced texting, she loves the speed, convenience and connection that it offers.

"You can have quite a conversation with texting. It would be totally inhibiting if I couldn't do it."

The Wellington retiree regularly texts her grandchildren ("I don't think they use text language with me because they probably think I wouldn't understand it") and isn't afraid to use abbreviated words instead of fully spelling them out. However, she agrees that big or serious news is best passed on in person or in a phone call.

"In telephone conversations you can hear someone's reactions to what you're saying and you lose that in a text. If you're close to the person, it's better to talk to them on the phone or in some other way. Texting is still a really good way of communicating though and I would hate to do without it. Not being able to text cuts you off."

Kate Larmer, NZ Vodafone's learning and development manager, HR Centres of Expertise (TLDR: she's in HR), says texting is a normal part of business at the giant telco. She says the company has no formal policy about staff texting to say they won't be at work.

"It depends on the team that you're in, and on the relationship you have with your boss," she says. "If the relationship is based on trust, it doesn't matter how you communicate. One of my team texted me this morning to say they wouldn't be in and I'm completely fine with that. They manage their own workloads and I know they would call me if they needed me to pick something up, but a text is fine. However, they have other rules in other parts of the business because they operate differently."

Larmer says texting, along with WhatsApp messaging and other social tools, is widely used across the organisation.

"It's pretty common practice here to send someone, even a director, a text to say 'I've sent you an email, can you read it?' or 'I'm going to be five minutes late'. It helps to create a more informal relationship with people, which works well in our environment.

"That said, there are some conversations that are absolutely best had face-to-face, or over the phone. The good thing about texts is that they're easy; you don't have to front up. But for more challenging conversations, texting is not okay."

Kyle Bell knows that only too well, after making a huge tactical error in the early days of WhatsApp messaging. The Rhythm & Vines marketing and partnerships director had just come back from an epic trip to Europe in 2010 when he decided to call it quits with the woman he'd been seeing.

"We'd only been together for a few months and I decided to send a WhatsApp message to break up instead of ringing her," he recalls with embarrassment.

"I wasn't in the best mental state at the time and it was certainly frowned upon, but I've made up for it massively. We now have a daughter and a life together, so I definitely wouldn't want to be doing that again."

Bell's life is all about digital communication - he uses WhatsApp to keep in touch with mates and talks to his parents on Facebook Messenger. Work conversations are conducted via Slack ("you don't necessarily want your workmates' personal phone numbers or WhatsApp accounts, do you?").

He's learned from his rookie messaging mistake and now thinks there are far greater communication wrongs to right.

"I hate voice messages. I'd prefer a text to say 'hey, can you give me a call, it's urgent' rather than have to listen to a voice message that you can't hear properly. Voice messages are horrible. As wrong as I was, at least I didn't leave a breakup voice message."