3 fatal tendencies crippling your online communication

9 min. to read.

I love sarcasm as a form of communication. The subtlety of a quiet, sarcastic retort can make me smile for days.

But online? The list of people I’ve offended or hurt, many unknowingly, is long. I’ve also left a wake of miscommunication behind me, as people who don’t know me tried to process things I wrote online.

I’m a thinker and a communicator. Present a blank comment field for me to type into and I feel the implicit invitation to teach, clarify, and expound! Sometimes, the topic doesn’t even matter. I’ve been learning, though, that the situation is not always asking for what I want to offer. Instead of furthering the conversation, my lengthy point-laden comments brings the flow to a halt.

Online, I’ve left behind the image of someone who holds their opinions a little too highly, someone pedantic. Instead of experiencing my words as helpful clarification, sometimes people experience them as arrogant condescension. I process quickly. I am a muller where relational issues are concerned, but when it comes to concepts, ideas, and theology, I have something to say right now!

What about you?

In the past, a challenging email or controversial Facebook post would put my thoughts into overdrive. My mind would begin assembling points, drawing in supporting evidence, mustering sharp logic. Some poor person at the other end of the internet had barely pressed “send,” sharing an emotional response or query when they already had in front of them a well-ordered response that completely missed the emotional heart of their communication.

These failures of communication are my own fault. They find their root in my deficits, and at times, immaturity. (Hopefully growing!) But those shortcomings have been exaggerated–made far worse–by three fatal tendencies that all digital communication share.

Ignore these tendencies and you will find digital communication repeatedly at the heart of broken relationship. If you don’t have a plan for dealing with these, your digital communication will very often violate your commitment to follow the way of Jesus.

Digital communication through written text alone has presented a new kind of interaction, with a new set of advantages and disadvantages.

  • The telephone was communication at a distance, but it preserved the information conveyed by tone of voice.
  • The telegraph was communication at a distance at great speed, but it’s symbolic language of dots and dashes meant it would never be used for more than brief, logistical information.
  • The hand-written letter took so long, both in creating and in sending, that careful consideration of the words written was baked into the process.

Digital communication combines the best and worst of all of these. It happens at a distance, with no physical presence. It can happen nearly instantaneously. This creates new ways our communication can easily fail if we are not thoughtful and attentive. These failures can be simple miscommunications. But they can often be much, much worse, damaging relationships, dividing community, creating very real pain that lasts far beyond the ephemeral comment that caused the hurt.

Ignore these things as you type, and you’ll wind up hurting people.

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1) Digital communication is (sometimes unintentionally) focused on you.

Would you be surprised to hear that the writer of Proverbs accurately prophesied the coming of social media nearly three thousand years ago? He did. He wrote in Proverbs 18:2 “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only wants to show off his opinions.” Sounds just like Facebook, right?

The first fatal tendency of digital communication is that it so easily becomes all about me. My opinion. My gripes. My views. My momentary feelings.

We can talk about these things in person, but for most of us, a face-to-face conversation brings along with it some natural limits and boundaries. We become aware of these boundaries through the facial expressions and body language feedback we receive from the people we’re with. A concerned look when it looks like we may be about to go too far. A tightening expression telling us we just misspoke and perhaps caused harm. At the very least, we’re clued in that we should stop and check.

Digital communication, unlike those face-t0-face conversations, starts with just you and a screen. Sure, there’s other people at the end of the network somewhere, but they are abstract. Sometimes you know them. Many times they are little more than an opinion. They have no embodied presence with you. There’s nothing to tell us how our communication is being received until its too late.

With the audience for our words is abstracted away from us, without body or facial expressions, it’s just us and a screen. Of course, our words would become self-focused! As we type, we’re literally the only ones present. Good face-to-face communication requires good listening. But by stripping away the presence of the other person, good listening online is exponentially harder. The only voice we’re often hearing at all is the one in our own heads.

2) Digital communication tends to strip out emotional significance.

Facebook and Twitter are artesian springs, a never-ceasing flow of droll observations, sarcastic quips, and hashtagged ironic complaints. Even when we aren’t posting pictures of our meals, or sharing how much we #lovelovelove the new movie that just came out, the engine of digital communication makes sharing real emotions hard.

The second fatal tendency of digital communication is that our words are stripped of their emotional weight. Because we can’t see each other’s faces, or look into each others eyes, our texts and emails and online comments become emotionally shallow.

Strangely, this happens even when we are talking about significant emotional experiences. In a face-to-face conversation, when someone starts to share their current emotional reality, it comes through in more than words. Their face changes. Perhaps their eyes glisten. You can hear a waver in their voice. Through cues like these, you’ll often know immediately that they are sharing something very sacred, very personal. That non-verbal feedback helps you weigh the significance of the conversation appropriately. It keeps you from being insensitive or flippant.

Online, however, this is nearly impossible to discern. This is why emoticons evolved! This is why people are so sensitive to COMMENTING IN ALL CAPS! We need every clue we can get to understand the emotional state of the conversation.

The result of this circumstance is that we can talk about important things: the things we love, and the things we hate, painful experiences #ImSoDepressed #CantGetOutOfBed, and those messages are stripped of their emotional weight.
In some ways, this makes it easier to talk about these things. That’s good. But this reality also sets limits on the depth of our relational connection.

Without care, we come off facile or insincere. People respond glibly to us, in ways they would never do if they were sitting across the table from us. If we can’t feel what others are feeling, but we can still comment, the chances that we’re going be hurtful or inappropriate increase enormously.

3. Digital communication lowers the threshold for careful consideration.

This stuff is fast. I don’t mean that the electrons transmit quickly. I mean that the pace of communication is fast, and it carries with it a built-in expectation of quick response. We’re being expected to communicate faster than we can carefully consider our words.

Here’s an example: We text, and then many of us watch for that little balloon with three dots telling us the other person is responding… or not. You do that, right? If they don’t respond immediately, we make meaning out of that. If the three dots appear and then, in a moment, disappear without a response, we make more meaning out of that. Sometimes we get hurt, hurt by nothing, by something that didn’t occur! Never mind that they might be in a meeting, or driving, or putting their kids to bed. Or worse… taking time to carefully consider their response.

Online comment fields and the email reply-all button invite us to jump into the conversation without thinking. We dash off a response and click send or submit, and haven’t really thought through our words or intentions.

Drive-Bys, where we jump into a conversation fully free to share our viewpoint, are daily occurrences. We don’t understand the culture or relational dynamics of the conversation that already exists, but we just barge in.

Written communication is often far more declarative, inflexible, and confrontational than we might be in person. There’s little chance mid-sentence for the listener to interrupt, asking a clarifying question that help us see our misunderstanding.

It’s just so easy and fast. We can have an entire back-and-forth conversation by email before we’ve even begun to contemplate the relational significance of the interaction. The chance of saying something that, upon reflection, we didn’t really mean or perhaps didn’t mean in the “way that it sounded,” is painfully high.

Comment as you’d like to be commented to.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at a model for bringing the ethic of following Jesus into our digital communication. But today we end with this observation.

For anyone, these three embedded tendencies can be a problem. They strip much of the human quality out of our human interaction. But for followers of Jesus the risk is higher.

Our standard for living is found in Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40. Love God with all we are and have, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our relational starting point is to treat others as we would like to be treated, even more, to offer others the grace and mercy that we wish to receive.

In order to do this, our communication needs to be other-centered, attentive to the heart of the people we are speaking to. When we type or text or comment, we are not loving our neighbor unless we are considering their full humanity, including their emotional reality. We are more likely to speak in ways that are both true and loving if we take the time to carefully consider our words.

That is, after all, how we’d like to be spoken to.

7 thoughts on “3 fatal tendencies crippling your online communication

  1. Really liking this series. Thanks Marc,
    I have been on both ends. I guess that helps my empathy. Sometimes I have been afraid to post an opinion knowing that it would be likely to be misunderstood. I remember making a specific point about something and having a number of readers take the discussion in a totally different direction. Very frustrating.
    But then I have caught myself doing the ‘fly by’ response in the past and then realizing that I hadn’t actually read the post! I had ‘stolen’ the conversation. Darn it,
    I am much more intentional now.
    I know that so many people just stay shallow on social media. But I think that’s the wrong response. Social Media is not the place for deep complex conversations, but it can be a place of authenticity and connection. We have to continue to socially construct ‘positive discourse’ instead of the old paradigm attack and compete.
    I am just one of those overly optimistic people who actually believe it’s possible- and actually what we as Christians are called to.

    1. Hey Diane,

      I’m optimistic too. I’ve been a part of some very deep and complex conversations online. But everyone in the group has to share the commitment to maintain the culture that allows for that. I think that’s why Facebook is such a difficult space for real conversations. Unless you’re a stickler with groups and your security settings, your discussions are visible to everyone’s friends. That’s where the drive-bys come in. But, I think we can pave the way by being attentive to the concerns I mentioned in this post.

      I am much more intentional now too. It makes a big difference.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I love hearing your thoughts.

  2. I agree with the first two – but I’m not convinced about the last of the three. Yes, there is a risk and practice of some people responding online in haste, but I think it actually gives more opportunity for consideration and thoughtful deliberation than the average conversation does.

    Face to face discussions tend to be dominated by the people who have the loudest voice, most obnoxious views or have a set of ‘facts’ in their head – online communication provides a more level playing field and let’s people think about stuff a bit longer, ‘call a friend’ or research the issues themselves before re-engaging in the dialogue.

    1. I think that’s possible for some folks, Manu. There is the potential, for people willing to pause on clicking send, to do more reflection and research. What I experience, though, is that internet conversation is dominated by a different kind of loud voice. Not necessarily the loud or most charismatic person, but the person who can type the fastest, and articulate their argument early, tends to dominate the forum. Like you, though, I think there is hope . It’s what I’m encouraging in this post, actually. Take the time to stop and consider before clicking submit! Be intentional.

  3. I so agree with what you say. I have tried to be more thoughtful about even clicking the “like” button, or reposting things that may offend others. (This can go in a lot of different directions!)
    Every once in a while I will have someone comment in person that they enjoy my posts…and it will be an individual who rarely posts or interjects comments themselves. This has REALLY made me stop and think! I have friends from various points in my life on my Facebook feed: schoolmates from grade school, college and nursing school acquaintances, past and present coworkers, folks from church, and so on…some know me well and have seen me in action (groan), others have an impression that makes me wince because I know I am not as sweet and nice as they think I am!

    Thanks for your series on this subject, it has been refreshing to hear a realistic nonpreachy point of view.

  4. Thanks for this post, Marc.

    As stewards of this life & the gifts we’ve received, I believe we glorify God when we’re teachable. Your encouragement to consider how we communicate online is valuable teaching.

    We possess both strengths & weaknesses in how we express our gifts and all of us have both built-up & torn down with our communication. May we, individually & collectively, become vessels that build more and more.

    “Lord, May we as Your sons & daughters remain humble–and effective. May our words, both oral & written, flow from Your Spirit within us.”

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I think you’re right about teachability. That’s the starting point for any possible growth.

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