• Living

The Pistorious Trial and Why You Can’t Judge a Person By Their Texts

5 minute read

I like to think I’m mostly a nice person. But look at my text messages and you’ll probably think I’m insane.

And I know I’m not alone — we’ve all used texting as a way to get out all of our passive aggressive and sometimes just plain aggressive aggressive feelings. So what would happen if someone read your texts after you weren’t around? Simple: You’d probably look like a shallow, venal human nightmare that has unkind exchanges about how your friend is always late to everything. And of course, you couldn’t resist calling them out in a group text. You know, just everyday friend shaming stuff.

The same thing is happening on a much bigger and more serious scale as the world analyzes Oscar Pistorius’ text messages to his slain girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp after they were used in testimony during the Olympic athlete’s trial. Authorities extracted more than 1,000 messages between the two from her phone. That sounds like a lot of texts. At least until you consider how many times we all press “send” on any given day.

Police captain Francois Moller characterized 90% of the messages as “loving” in his testimony. Nonetheless, some of the exchanges between Pistorious and Steenkamp do sound chilling — partially because they’re taken out of context and because we are interpreting them knowing what happens next. One of the texts from Steenkamp reads, “I’m scared of u sometimes and how u snap at me and how u will react to me.” Gulp. Another reads “I can’t be attacked by outsiders for dating u AND be attacked by you, the one person I deserve protection from.” Double gulp. A longer WhatsApp message tweeted by a journalist attending the trial (and posted by Jezebel) shades in the colors of a relationship that was at times fraught.

#ReevaSteenkamp’s message to #OscarPistorius pic.twitter.com/IAKZJkNAA1

— Barry Bateman (@barrybateman) March 24, 2014

A deeper look at some of the messages — including ones Pistorius sent to Steenkamp — shows a constant back and forth with Steenkamp defending her behavior, usually quite elegantly. The things that made Pistorius snap at her seem pretty insignificant, at one point he even uses hunger as a defense for getting upset. And even without considering the possible guilt of Pistorius and the trial, fear seems to emanate from Steenkamp’s pleas for respect and love. As the Frisky pointed out, the exchanges show classic relationship behavior patterns that are worrisome on a number of levels.

In fact it’s impossible not to read their words and get caught up in speculation about both Pistorious’ guilt and the general tenor of the couple’s relationship. But is it fair to use texts as a true barometer of people’s actual feelings and behavior? Before you answer, consider those terse, overdramatic exchanges you have with your significant others about small things that don’t seem like they matter, but actually represent larger, more meaningful issues.

We use texting as the most intimate form of communication, almost an extension of our brains. The way that we decide to derive meaning from what people say affects our lives profoundly. And it’s not just text — Gchat and email all afford us the opportunity to dash off innocent notes that are, nonetheless, ripe for misunderstanding. We read entire articles about why punctuation marks are making us angry, annoyed and even fearful about another person’s feelings toward us.

And by and large, that’s the root of the problem. Even though these texts are the repository of our most intimate — and arguably honest — feelings, they’re also full of thoughts that don’t represent us or how we’re feeling at all. Think about all of the times you’ve sent someone a message, only to have them come back to you and ask “are you mad at me?”

So what would they see if they opened up my recent text history? They’d see a lot of whining, a little bit of nagging and a whole lot of superfluous crap. There’s also a number of terse exchanges, mostly with people like my parents, who aren’t necessarily the best texters in the world, but have resigned themselves to using this communication tool with me. The majority of texts between my mother and me say things like “are you coming home tonight?” or “have not spoken to you in a long time.” My mom’s not unhappy with me, she just hasn’t figured out emojis yet. Give her time.

My group chat with my female digital BFFs, basically makes us all look like needy sociopaths who do a terrible job of juxtaposing our desire for constant affirmation with serious life questions. A quick scroll shows a rambling feed that’s a bewildering mix of braggadocio (“I just made THE BEST Brussels sprouts!”), inside jokes (we have a penchant for messaging a list of every item consumed during particularly gluttonous meals) and intense, naked need for approval (“which pair of glasses do you like? Please tell me now because the sales lady is breathing down my neck omg omg”).

Long story short, I wouldn’t want any of it to be entered into evidence, no matter what the case.


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com