WhatsApp for Dummies (AKA what your parents wish they knew)

Have you ever gotten a WhatsApp message from your mom that was unintentionally walking a very thin line between hilarity and horror? Maybe it was the eggplant emoji that set you off, or the fact that she signed her name at the end–as if you didn’t already know who had written to you. Whatever it was, there’s a reason you took it in a way she never meant you to.

More than anything, this is an issue of genre. You may have come across the term when talking about literary genres (used to classify books as horror stories, fantasy fiction, mysteries, poetry…you get the idea). In linguistics, genres define different types of texts such as letters, emails, blog posts or text messages. Some of those genres have their own, distinctive patterns of grammar, some of them their very own vocabulary to draw from, and the differences that set them apart from each other are basically catnip for linguists performing what’s called genre analysis.

So, back to our original question: how come your parents struggle with the genre of WhatsApp?

Well, WhatsApp is a pretty new way of communicating–the app was released only 9 years ago, back in 2009. Our parents are simply used to different genres: at your age, they couldn’t just send WhatsApp messages from a smartphone 24/7. They had to send emails, call someone from a landline, or maybe even send handwritten letters. Not ironically or out of some hipster sense of originality. They actually had to write letters by hand for day2day communication.

(Image: Pixabay CC0)

Now compare a WhatsApp message with an old-fashioned letter. A lot of time passes from writing a letter until it reaches the addressee, therefore, letters usually require a greeting and a farewell. People who write letters often put the date at the top and sign their name at the bottom of the text. They may also include their entire street address somewhere in the letter–necessary information for the reader, who might want to respond. Then comes the process of finding an envelope, buying a stamp, and taking the letter to the post office. With WhatsApp messages, this is completely different. We’re connected with our friends all the time and able to constantly communicate with them without having to say hello or goodbye, never mind include our current mailing address.

Generated by http://www.fakewhats.com/generator


Imagine you received a WhatsApp message in the style of a written letter like the one on the right. It looks totally out of place, doesn’t it? What would be useful information in a letter is completely unnecessary in a WhatsApp message.

Spelling and capitalization also tend to be different on WhatsApp. In a letter, the pronoun “I” and proper names for people or places generally need to be capitalized. That is because in a letter, you usually pay a lot more attention to proper spelling than you do in a quick message. On WhatsApp, there are no strict rules for this: some people capitalize words all the time and some never do, depending on their individual preferences. Still others change their style of language depending on who they’re writing to and what they’re writing about. In linguistics, this is called using different registers. Your best friend will have no problem understanding a message full of abbreviations, uncapitalized words, and informal language, but a message to your grandma or a teacher using the same register might be a completely unintelligible disaster for them.

Plus there are emojis. It’s one thing for your mom or dad to figure out where the emoji menu on their phones is. It’s another thing altogether for them to understand which emojis are appropriate for which contexts. If they use too many in a row, you might think they’re trying too hard, but when it comes to the aforementioned eggplant emoji, things can get weird, fast. Nobody wants to be part of their parents’ sex life.

(GIF: via GIPHY)

Without diving too deeply into discussions on psychology, the problem here ultimately revolves around what your parents see themselves as, how you see them, and how those two vantage points don’t exactly match up. Your parents tried their best to be figures of wisdom and authority in your life, to guide you straight past the phase of being generally insufferable animals you’re going through right now into somewhat resentful, but functioning adults. But that makes it easy to forget that they’re people too, what with feelings and such, and not just wisdom-trees for you to pick from. Getting a message with a bunch of eggplants and inappropriate language basically reminds you that they’re just as human as you are, ready and able to embarrass themselves at a moment’s notice.

But none of that is their fault.

Though WhatsApp messages from parents can be awkward or even downright silly at times, you generally are able to understand the gist of what they’re trying to say. Ultimately, the genres “letter” and “WhatsApp message” are not completely dissimilar. If you want to do your parents a favor, you could let them know that there are a few differences between the two. Or then again, maybe you shouldn’t tell them…after all, their not-so-perfect messages have a certain charm to them, don’t they?

What’s the funniest WhatsApp message you’ve ever received from a parent? Would you consider your parents to be proficient at WhatsApp communication, or are they still learning? Tell us in the comments.



Featured image: Pixabay CC0.



Hi there! We are Sophie, Paul and Melina and we are first-year students of the MA programme "Applied Linguistics" in Bonn. We hope you enjoy our posts!

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