In recent times I’ve become very interested in difficulties associated with on-line communication.

Firstly, let me set out my stall and say that, whilst I have reservations about on-line communication, I feel it has much to offer. It enables us to form and maintain connections with others all over the world; it allows us to be heard and understood on a wide scale; it lets us not just ‘tell’ in words, but also ‘show’ in pictures, what is important to us.  However, I do perceive a problem where the norms of spoken language are applied to the written (texted/Facebook/imessage etc.) word.

 

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Communication in spoken and written form goes back aeons of time. However, anyone who has ever been frustrated by the complexity of writing a letter, in contrast to the ease of making a phone call, will know that writing relies on a different set of rules to speaking.


Firstly, it is arguably more difficult to communicate exact meaning through writing, without the benefit of facial expression and non-verbal language to give valuable extra information. I appreciate that emojis are an attempt to bridge this gap, but, for me, cartoon faces still fall somewhat short of the mark.
Imagine, if you will, that a friend asks you if you’re OK. ‘I’m fine’, you say despondently. If this interaction occurs face-to-face, your friend will usually see that your words don’t match your facial expression and body language, and form an instant opinion of how ‘fine’ you really are.


However, if you respond ‘I’m fine’ by text, there is no confirming/disconfirming information available via your non-verbal communication. This leaves your written response open to interpretation.


These interpretations are responsible for a lot of heart-ache and hurt feelings. I emphasise the word ‘interpretation’, because interpretations are not facts – they are perceptions, yet many of us take them as ‘truths’.


A common error of perception is what might be termed ‘mind-reading’ – that is, believing that we know what another person is thinking, feeling or experiencing. Many people are very attached to their interpretations of another’s behaviour, and will claim they ‘just know’ what that other person means. Usually this ‘knowledge’ is based on their perceptions and has been filtered through their own, often negative, bias, rather than via a direct attempt to discover what the other person means.


If mind-reading occurs regularly in face-to-face communications, imagine how magnified is this tendency when everything happens via the written word. Now there are two challenges; the lack of non-verbal communication, and the bias towards making a negative interpretation. This is a potential powder-keg for miscommunications and rifts in relationships.

 

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A further difficulty is treating an on-line interaction as though it’s a face-to-face one. Let me provide an example: if you speak to a person in real life and they either don’t respond or they get up and leave the room without comment, then they are ignoring you. However, if an individual doesn’t open your message or respond to your text immediately, then a number of things could have occurred. They may not have seen the message. They may have seen it but then been called away before they have a chance to reply. They may have simply forgotten. They may be at work or in company and unable to answer. They may have lost their phone or had an emergency come up. And yes – they may be upset with you, but why is this so often the first conclusion drawn when all the other possibilities are just as likely?


What seems to happen with frequency in the above scenario is that feelings are hurt and people fall out because they choose to believe they are being ignored, rather than considering the myriad of possible reasons for a lack of immediate response. There can be a sense that it’s possible to pick up a ‘tone’ in on-line communications that means the other person is being moody. ‘Tone’ is something that is heard aurally – it cannot be detected in the written word. If someone writes a shorter message than usual, the chances are high they are short on time, rather than that they are being snippy with you.

 

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So, from a plethora of possible interpretations, why not pick whichever one allows you the most peace? The chances are you will feel better in yourself, and your relationships will be stronger for it. Alternatively, you could arrange to see the person and ask them face-to-face whether they meant what you thought. This is called ‘checking out’, and is a really valuable communication skill – an antidote, if you will, to mind-reading. You will have the added benefit of non-verbal communication to allow you to judge what’s going on. Finally, it’s worth noticing when you find yourself applying the rules of face-to-face communication to your on-line interactions, and considering how helpful this really is in strengthening connection with the people in your life.

 

Deborah Shakespeare