Why Texting ‘Sure’ Sounds So Hostile

About a year ago, Isabel Steckel texted her 30-year-old older brother about hanging out the following afternoon. She received a one-word reply: “Sure.”

“If you’re bringing ‘sure’ attitude, then let’s not do it,” Steckel countered. “And he said, ‘lol,’ and I said, ‘I’m not kidding, lol.’”

This May, the New York City-based comedian shared a screenshot of this conversation on X, formerly Twitter, and received more than 11,000 likes. The “sure” haters rose up to share how answering “sure” sounds passive and dispiriting. A “sure” texter apologized in a reply for the violence he had “inflicted while trying to appear easy and breezy.”

This is only the latest entry in a perennial and continuously divisive debate over what “sure” really means. One Reddit user in the subreddit for “unpopular opinions” declared that the word “sure” is “synonymous with ‘yes’ and shouldn’t be associated with sarcasm and attitude,” while a commentator for the Outline wrote in 2018 that the word is “the most passive-aggressive affirmative phrase” that is “a thumbs up to your face, and a jerkoff motion behind your back.”

Clearly, we are not sure about what “sure” should mean.

Although the dictionary meaning of “sure” is affirmation and certainty, its meaning can be anything but certain but in a text conversation.

Why “sure” sounds so passive and indecisive in texts, according to a sociolinguist

Steckel said the word’s meaning is context dependent. She noted that replying “sure” for an errand or task is fine, but it sounds more devastating to hear when you are inviting someone to spend time with you.

“Asking someone to hang out for me is like a very vulnerable move. So when I’m getting that ‘sure,’ I’m like, ‘Alright, fuck it. I’m not doing it,’” she said.

Steckel said a “sure” reply sounds like the other person would rather “die than hang out” and “forcing someone to hang out with you is the worst feeling in the world.”

The problem with “sure” is that it sounds more tentative and less enthusiastic than an outright “yes!” or “absolutely,” especially when you do not have body language or vocal cues to reassure you.

“Sure is sort of indecisive, or has kind of a hesitant quality to it. Like, ‘Do want to go to the movies?’ ‘Sure.’ Do you really want to go?” explained Georgetown University sociolinguist Cynthia Gordon.

Gordon said the different meanings of “sure” might also be generational. “The younger generation expects more enthusiasm in texting in general than older folks do,” she said. She also noted that “women tend to expect more of those explicit markers of enthusiasm.”

In a text, the length of a message can also take on outsized importance in the absence of in-person cues. Similar to why a one-word “OK” or “k” reply sounds so alarming and curt to receive, shorter answers imply lesser effort.

Meanwhile, Gordon said that the effort to write a full sentence or to write some extra exclamation points suggests, “Yeah, I really am enthusiastic about this.”

It’s why a one-word “sure” stirs doubt, but “sure thing” ― my own standard reply ― can sound slightly more genuine, if you are truly down to follow through on a request.

One helpful tip if you do get a bland “sure” is to take a step back and remember that it’s not automatically a sign of disinterest. Gordon said every person thinks their own way of communication is the natural way and “we all need to be more generous in our interpretations.”

Gordon cited the “Key & Peele” sketch between comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a classic example of this. In the video, “there’s a whole miscommunication just because one person misinterprets the other’s kind of short, casual messages as being like, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care.’ But that’s not what’s going on,” Gordon explained.

In the sketch, it’s not until the anxious friend character sees his smiling buddy’s face at the bar that he realizes that his friend actually wanted to hang out with him. It’s a reminder that in-person intonation can provide more valuable information about the state of your relationship than just a one-word “sure” text.

But until you meet up in-person, it does not hurt to give your conversation partner a little more reassurance.

“I would be less happy if I invited someone somewhere and they said, ‘Sure.’ I think I’d want more enthusiasm for some social kind of engagement,” Gordon said. “If you’re making the effort to connect with somebody, and kind of put it out there that you do something together and the other person says, ‘sure,’ it wouldn’t meet my expectations for suggesting it was going to be a good time.“

Padding your “sure” with a cheerful exclamation or even an extra word or two can make it clearer that you are truly agreeable to what the other person is saying. “I do think a ‘sure’ with an exclamation point is worlds different than just a normal ‘sure,’” Steckel said.

All to say: You can be “sure,” or you can be “sure!” Do you want to possibly send your friend or family member into an anxious spiral or do you want to spend one additional second adding that bubbly exclamation point or extra word?

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