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The secret life of the accidental text

You’ve written a damning email about your boss to your best friend. So why have you just typed your boss’s name into the ‘to’ box and hit send? Is your subconscious trying to tell you something? Ségolène Barbé reports

Behind nearly every modern-day sex scandal is a mobile phone. Tiger Woods had been texting his mistress all afternoon, then left the house to play poker with the boys, leaving his phone behind. His wife read one of the messages then went for him with a nine iron.

When Ashley Cole tried, and failed, to come up with a valid reason for why he was sending naked pictures of himself to another woman, his marriage disintegrated. ‘I can’t believe I gave a phone away that still had stuff in its memory,’ he said. ‘I thought I’d deleted it.’ These men didn’t really want to get found out and be humiliated in the press. Or did they?

You don’t have to be a celebrity, or an adulterer, to make a mistake. We’ve all sent ambiguous texts, emailed the wrong person or left our Facebook accounts open, but what might seem like a technical slip-up or oversight can reveal another side of us, whether we like it or not.

‘My boyfriend was coming home after a month away and I sent him a text message saying, “Hurry... I’m waiting for you”,' says Claire, 38. 'Half an hour later my ex rang the doorbell. I’d sent the message to him by mistake.’ Mobiles are supposed to make communicating easier but new technology can also trip us up.

Emails, texts and instant messages mean we are in constant touch and our communications can be impulsive or uncontrolled, almost stream-of-consciousness. The immediacy of modern communication can definitely contribute to slip-ups, says Dr Larry Rosen, author of Rewired: Understanding The iGeneration And The Way They Learn. ‘There’s a beep, and our emails and texts seem to arrive out of nowhere, and we text straight back. This sense of speed creates an artificial sense of urgency, so editing ourselves becomes an issue.’

Furthermore, texting, emailing and twittering are an altogether solitary business. The person we’re contacting is not in front of us. ‘You have to infer what the other is thinking or feeling,’ says Rosen. ‘At worst you’re dealing with letters on a screen, and at best someone will throw in a smiley face, but what’s really missing is context. We don’t know what the other person’s internal or external setting is, where they are, if they’ve had a bad day and, without those cues, you have to make them up,’ he says.

E-communication, then, is all about us. ‘It’s a form of what Freud would call projection,' says Rosen. 'You project what you want the other person’s context to be.’ Everything is from your perspective. ‘For example, if you think someone’s mad at you then you project that all over them. This is why online dating tends to be a failure much of the time because we’re mostly dealing electronically with people, trying to get to know them by text or email. But this leaves missing pieces so we fill in the blanks and, sadly, we are not very good at that.’

There can also be a darker side to our technological mishaps. Unlike dreams, which we can keep to ourselves, the involuntary things we say in messages reveal our innermost secret desires. ‘They strip bare our subconscious,’ says Françoise Juranville, a former teacher of psychoanalysis. ‘We fear these slip-ups because they so often reveal something crude or indecent. They reveal what’s normally repressed, ruin our reserve and put on show what we wanted to hide (whether we knew we were hiding it or not).’

Not everyone agrees. Rosen is convinced our slip-ups are essentially technologically driven. ‘Somehow, because we have a screen separating us from the person we’re contacting, we feel more disinhibited, or hyperpersonal. We feel that we can say things that we wouldn’t ordinarily say face to face.’

This explains both Cole’s and Woods’ slip-ups, but how could they have been stupid enough to think they wouldn’t get caught? Because we (wrongly) see these communications as ephemeral, Rosen explains. ‘We send a text, it goes up into the air and it’s gone,' he says. 'Only it hasn’t. It’s still there but we tend to be more glib, more sexualised, dishonest – or brutally honest. This swing in our levels of disclosure is to do with the fact that this technology is hidden. You feel this comfort when you’re behind the screen and can forget yourself.

‘A Freudian would say there’s some unconscious motive going on. That may well be. If anything, it’s technology that’s promoting those unconscious motives. It’s just too simple to send a message that says what we want.’

Slip-ups can also show our aggressive side. After a row during filming, Benedetta Pinelli, former editor of LK Today on GMTV, accidentally sent a text to Lorraine Kelly instead of her husband, saying Kelly was a nightmare to deal with and that she [Pinelli] hated her. Pinelli quickly resigned. Therapist Hélène Bonnaud believes this was her subconscious taking revenge. ‘The more you want to hide something, the more you risk revealing it accidentally.’ That’s why we so often make these mistakes with work emails, turning situations in which we wanted to come across as professional, into awkward or farcical scenarios.

As Freud said, there is intention behind every subconscious act, so perhaps our interaction with modern technology can tell us more about ourselves. It certainly seems to reveal hidden truths. Our interactions can bring out – sometimes brutally and with devastating effects – our guilty feelings, whether we are conscious of them or not, or our need to be accepted as we are.

There are many ways we can stop ourselves doing a ‘Benedetta’ or an ‘Ashley’. ‘If you’re writing a difficult text, type it, go away for a few minutes, then reread it,’ says Rosen. ‘Then ask yourself, is this what you want to present to the person? And don’t press send until the answer is “yes”.’