It’s a coincidence that Penny, the heroine of Mary H.K. Choi’s young-adult novel Emergency Contact, happens to be passing by as Sam, her local barista, is having his first panic attack. She gives him a ride, and her number, and tells him to text her when he gets home. He jokes that she’s his “emergency contact.”
Even though their relationship starts with an actual emergency, as the book progresses, being emergency contacts starts to mean that they are each other’s default sounding board for the random stream-of-consciousness thoughts that cry out to be shared, even though they don’t need to be. Sam texts Penny asking for fashion advice; Penny texts Sam about how much she hates maraschino cherries. For the bulk of the book, Penny and Sam are not physically present with each other, but their relationship is built with the bricks of life’s minutiae, constructed line by line within the confines of their phones.
Emergency Contact is a book about how relationships that begin as a collection of pixels can become capital-R Real—in the Velveteen Rabbit sense. It’s also about the vague and slippery rules of communication in the digital age that both help and hurt those relationships. I spoke with Choi—a journalist who’s written for a variety of outlets (including The Atlantic)—about what those rules are, how we pretend to know them when we really don’t, and how she managed to write texts for a pair of young adults without sounding like an out-of-touch old person.
Julie Beck: Emergency Contact reminded me of the Wired article you did in 2016 where you embedded with different teens around the country to learn about their social-media habits. Was that the genesis of the idea?
Mary H.K. Choi: It wasn’t the genesis. Emergency Contact, as far as it being a love story between these two people, was already a thing. But when I was reporting out that Wired story, I was thinking about what it meant to be able to imprint on someone via phone—how real that is and how intimate it is. With texting, it’s almost as if it’s a confessional. You end up divulging so much more than you would if you were staring into someone’s eyes.
Sam has a moment where he’s revealing how he comes from zero money, and he’s so relieved that he can’t see judgment in Penny’s eyes. Those always perceptible but incalculable and fleeting micro-expressions where you can read that someone pities you or that they’re introducing some distance. That aspect of it not being there, I thought was interesting.
The other thing was that I was in the process of falling headlong into a relationship with someone long distance. It had been so long since I’d felt that kind of excitement. We were in our 30s, but we were just giddy. I’ve never tapped in my phone so long that my battery completely ran out, before this relationship.
Beck: You need to get one of those cases that has the charger.
Choi: No, but girl, I’m talking about from sunup to night, locked and loaded with a Mophie case with a full charge. It felt like dry heaving, I was so spent by the end of it.
The layer that no one wants to speak of is that there is always a threat of how staggeringly disappointing it could be when you meet in person. That’s a tension that underwrites all of it. So that, too, was obviously a really big part of the book. You worry if you’re on your phone just making promises that your actual self can never cash. That’s scary.
Beck: Was there any particular thing you noticed about how you were communicating with this person, or how the teens that you were spending time with communicated, that crystallized for you what you wanted this book to be?
Choi: The thing that really did directly inform this book, from that Wired article, was how much pressure there is. Jockeying for a popularity position has been a valorized teen tradition since the notion of a discrete teen stage of life was invented. But there’s this all-consuming worry for everything from climate change to unemployment to war. And they feel all of it, because of the immediacy of information in the 24-hour news cycle. I liken it to Spider-Man or any of these super humans who also are in high school, where it’s like: Save the world! But also math homework!
They’re all lonely, there’s so much noise, and I wanted to focus on a story that was about being able to find your signal in all the noise. The notion of this “emergency contact” is: Do you have someone who is holding you down? Do you know where to go if you’re feeling bad? I keep likening it to assigning yourself a godparent of your choosing.
Beck: I have this friend who I Gchat with all day every day, for probably seven or eight years now. It’s just very stream of consciousness during the day. But if almost anybody else were to contact me that much, I’d probably be annoyed. It seems like a unique sort of relationship, the one that’s very constant and very intimate but almost entirely digital. This friend I don’t see very much in person. I’m interested in the nature of that unique kind of relationship.
Choi: There’s so much solace in just ... crap. The effluvia of life, where it’s like: “Hey what did you eat for lunch?” “God, what do I want for lunch?” The people who can answer the seemingly rhetorical question of “What do I want to eat?”—those are the special people. They should get a gold star, they should be recognized.
Were Penny and Sam to never culminate in their first date on the last page, if that hadn’t happened, there is still a great beauty and poetry in their relationship which I don’t think people should be quick to dismiss. Because that’s incredibly valuable and rich. And not at all compromised by how many zeroes and ones comprise the framework of it.
Beck: When I was a kid, I remember reading young-adult books that were written in epistolary email format, and I’ve seen some that are written entirely as texts or instant messages. I’m not going to name names, but some of them were truly awful. Like: “OMG U—letter U—won’t believe what Chad said in math class!” Just a parody of what old people think teens sound like. And yours feels very natural. How did you think about what kind of tone you wanted for Penny and Sam’s texts?
Choi: Us olds are so corny. Teens are otherized extensively, exhaustively. Spending time with real teens proved, as it usually does, that they’re such regular people. They have all the same insecurities and complicated feelings and awareness of where their understanding stalls out and how that scares them.
So I didn’t want that whole, “Oh my gah, na na na.” I really wanted it to feel like a conversation. If you do lean on text to do the heavy lifting in terms of creating a safe and intimate space for them, it had to not feel like text. I liken it to eating Doritos, where there is no satiation. You keep forgetting with each triangle you’ve ingested that you’ve had a Dorito. They are divulging things that are uncomfortable to them. And I didn’t want anything to bring you out of that.
Beck: There’s a super interesting paradox about texting that I’ve been thinking about lately. The medium creates a lot of opportunities for anxiety, like if someone isn’t getting back to you fast enough, or if you’re watching that little “dot dot dot” ripple or whatever—but at the same time we prefer to communicate this way. Americans text more than they call, and texting is the primary form of communication for most people, especially younger generations. Why do you think that is?
Choi: Texting is incredibly anxiety-laden. But I know people who will have a full-blown panic attack if you call them. I’m one of those nightmare humans where the little mailbox has an ellipsis on it because I have 1000 unread emails. So texting is the most immediate yet least anxious of all the incredibly anxious ways that we talk to each other.
Beck: It seems like we’re willing to trade that anxiety for a sense of control over the interaction. It feels easier to manage relationships asynchronously, or from a distance. Penny and Sam, for example, do feel more comfortable with each other in text format, at least at first. Do you think that’s because they feel more in control of what they’re saying that way?
Choi: For sure. But the one incredibly important distinction that they make very early on—and I do think this is the bedrock of their mutual trust—is that they always text back when they want to. It just sucks when you’re texting someone and for some reason every time you text them there’s a four-hour lag. Of course, sometimes you’re not going to be able to hit the other one back immediately. But for these guys, not only is it incredibly even in terms of who prompts the conversation, there is such a haphazardness to when they hit each other back that feels sincere. That, to me, is the greatest gift you can give to a texting person.
When you start thinking about response times—or “Ellipsis, silence, ellipsis, silence, ellipsis, silence”—you just want to die. And probably the worst is a read receipt, and then silence.
Beck: Leaving read receipts on is a questionable choice.
Choi: Yeah, it’s like a sociopath. Why would you do that to people?
Beck: Part of the problem is you don’t know the degree to which it’s a red flag or just someone who’s not technologically inclined and doesn’t know all the complicated rules.
Choi: Penny is so trusting with such a tiny social circle that she has wallpaper push notifications for her texts. That’s insane to me.
Beck: Where the full text appears on the lock screen, as opposed to saying “Message from so-and-so”?
Beck: Oh, mine definitely come up on the screen.
Choi: I feel like that means you’re a good person. A friend of mine recently got married. His messages come up on the screen, and I was like: “Wow that surprises me, I thought I knew you.” And he was like: “No one shady is texting me. It might be a work thing, but who’s gonna see it but my wife and my squalling baby? I’ve never felt freer.” I think that’s really beautiful.
Beck: I feel like I have slightly less beautiful motivations. I can’t stand the little red bubble that says one unread text, so I have to read it. But then I don’t always reply right away and I forget. So if I can just read it on the main screen, I don’t have to go into the app and open it.
Choi: Yeah, not me, I have to bank everything, otherwise, there’s too many tabs open in my brain. I’ll just be a pinwheel of death, if things come to me as they come to me.
Also just, existentially, why are we like this?
Beck: I don’t know.
Choi: This can’t actually be what we’re calling stasis. This can’t be our neutral setting. This is too crazy.
Beck: But it is our neutral setting.
Choi: It is now. And it burns. But it’s also fine. I keep picturing the dog in the hat in the burning house: This is fine.
Beck: He is our mascot for this age. It’s strange—texting really has become part of the fabric of our lives. But at the same time, it’s also a space apart from that. It’s a regular part of Penny and Sam’s lives. But they still draw a distinction between phonespace and meatspace, as you call it. Sam at one point even says that he wouldn’t know what to do if Penny just came out of his phone. Because she’s contained there.
Choi: You never feel meatspace as hardcore as high school. There are so many indicators of hierarchies and pecking orders, and so there’s this system to meatspace in high school. With college it’s loosey goosier. Except for the fact that popularity definitely does persist throughout our lives. It’s why celebrity is a thing. Granted, Sam is older than Penny is, but he’s more popular and it’s kind of empirical. Penny feels like their relationship couldn’t even exist in meatspace, because it’s so contrary to the natural order of the universe. The interface is the great equalizer. Texting does become a sort of neutral safe space.
I wanted to prove that the relationships you forge in these beaded curtains of DMs and texts and stuff aren’t in your imagination, and that being gaslit into believing that somehow isn’t real is unfair. I want to make the argument that it’s all real life.
Beck: What it seems like to me is adding or removing layers of context. In the book, every time Penny and Sam have some kind of new communication, moving from texting to phone calls or seeing each other in person, they call it “escalating.” You wouldn’t have as many levels to escalate up through in the past because it was only phone or in person and that’s it. Now that we do have all these options for how to communicate with people, do you think there’s a more complex etiquette for how to escalate through these levels?
Choi: Of course. The thing that’s tricky and slippery about it is that while it’s subjective, we somehow can’t talk about it. The thing that really sucks, and this is something I talked to the teens about, is this staring match of refusing to be the one to ask a question. It’s this word, that they and we use a lot, which is “awkward.” You don’t want to be the awkward one. We have all these conversations about consent and stuff but it’s still really, deeply uncool not to know the rules. So I think we’re all going around pretending we know the rules. There are a lot of intricacies now to whatever we’re calling courtship, or even friendship. I think it’s sad when people can’t talk about it.
Beck: It also seems like, in a weird way, we’ve grown more polite by adding all these different rules and different mediums. No one wants to put an obligation on someone else. You’re like, “Oh I won’t call them because it’s so rude of me to want my friend to carve out 15 minutes to talk to me.” So you text instead. And it’s kind of sad.
Choi: It always reminds me of the Looney Tunes [gophers]. You know how they’re standing on either side of a little doorway and prompting the other one to go in first? They keep being like “No, no, after you,” and it’s this politeness reverb that never ends. I feel like if I could eliminate the preamble to correspondence that accompanies every layer of the interface I would save countless hours a week.
In fact, I recently started doing phone calls and actually putting my foot down about it. Insisting that we do 10-to-15-minute phone calls instead of playing this rigmarole of email games, because I just can’t take it anymore.
This isn’t something I learned until I was much older, but relying on someone else breeds a kind of intimacy. There is so much focus on being self-sufficient and it makes it very difficult to ask for things. I’ve been crippled by this notion of high-functioning self-sufficiency. And I see it a lot in younger girls. Asking for help brings people closer in a way that I suspected but didn’t actually put into practice. And you can ask for that to be delivered to you in meatspace, or in any realm that you so see fit. I think that’s a really important way to know yourself: to know how you would like your information and how you would like your intimacies delivered to you, and to be able to ask for them.