Everybody has said something they later regret saying. If the person you’re talking to is right there in front of you, there’s nothing you can do to unsay it. As country singer Jon Langston says in one of his songs, “I can’t take back words.” But according to tech guru Kim Komando, the new iOS 16 operating system for iPhones (models 8 and later) lets you do that with text messages—sort of.
Ever since commercial text messaging became available on mobile phones in the mid-1990s, it has shared with verbal interchanges the fact that once you send a text, it’s gone and you can’t take it back. As texting has become easier, people all over the world have incorporated it into their everyday lives, with all sorts of consequences, both good and bad.
One might think that the same message spoken to another person in your presence is no different in its effects than one texted to the person on the other side of the world. But consider some of the differences.
Suppose you’re with someone whose respect you value, and you say something you immediately regret saying. Body language, both yours and your listener’s, is a crucial part of the exchange. If your listener’s expression shows hurt or surprise, you have a clue right away that you’ve said something you shouldn’t have. If the listener moves away, you can try to follow and explain yourself, or at least apologize.
On the other hand, texting the same injudicious message to the same person who isn’t in your presence can have graver consequences. The recipient may be so angry that you don’t hear back at all, and so you may have no idea how your poorly chosen message was received. It’s also possible that a sentence uttered in jest is clearly a joke in person, but in cold text looks like an insult, leading to misunderstandings and possibly even a breach in the relationship.
I’m not aware of any surveys on this subject, but I wouldn’t be surprised if millions of relationships over the past three decades have been damaged by ill-chosen text messages. Finally, Apple comes to the rescue with the take-it-back option on iOS 16 for iPhones.
According to Komando, the feature isn’t quite as good as it’s advertised to be. Say you send a text message to someone and change your mind and want to take it back. First off, both you and the recipient must be running iOS 16 on iPhones. That’s a problem with Android right there.
If your operating systems match, the recipient will be able to see your text until you unsend it. And you have only two minutes to do so—after that, it’s carved in digital stone, and Steve Jobs himself couldn’t take it back (well, maybe he could, but ordinary mortals can’t).
And even if you succeed in jerking the message away before your recipient sees it, the receiving phone shows a notification that you sent something and took it back. Depending on how imaginative your recipient is, this could be even worse than letting the message stand.
What if you don’t regret the whole message but just want to take out parts of it—a few cuss words, for example? The new iOS lets you edit messages, but only within 15 minutes of sending them, and guess what—the recipient can see all your edits if they know to tap your message. What’s the point in that?
Tongues (and now thumbs) get us into more trouble than almost any other part of the body. As St. James says, “No human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Most of us are at least teenagers before we learn to control our tongues with even partial success, and some people never learn at all.
Writing emails and texting only makes ill-chosen words worse, for the reasons I stated above, so we need to be especially careful when using electronic media. Unfortunately, the pressure brought to bear by Facebook, Twitter, and company is all the other way. The last thing they want people to do is text mild, well-considered, and charitable statements back and forth. The mean zingers get the attention, especially from people with millions of followers.
Apple’s move to allow retraction and editing of texts is a move in the right direction, but obviously isn’t going to solve all the problems that thoughtless or mean texts cause. If the texter is thoughtless or mean, it’s going to come through in the texts, no matter what kind of fancy software is in use. But those of us who try not to be harsh sometimes slip up anyway, and the editing and retraction features may help some.
For what it’s worth, I follow some practices that have kept me out of trouble with texts and emails many times. I own a flip phone on which it is rather tedious to send texts—the screen is so small, I have to use a stylus, and it gets about every fifth letter wrong, so I have to back up and fix it. I know this would drive 90 percent of the smartphone public insane, but the intentional slowness with which I have to text gives me time to think about what I’m saying.
And for any emails that I want a record of, I usually keep a log of activity and write a draft of the email first. Only when I think it’s what I really want to say do I copy it into the email software and send it.
And for any messages that contain bad news, I usually just call or meet the person face to face. Texting and emails can be misunderstood, and I’d rather hear or see a person’s reaction in real time than just hope it goes OK.
I’m glad that those with iOS 16 can now take back or change what they text, but even Apple can’t run time backward, so think before you type.
This article was originally published on MercatorNet.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University.