Sunday, August 19, 2012

Contentious Communication in the Digital Age

Digital communication not only a fact of the current age, but quite the convenience. Write a blog. Send and e-mail. Have a quick chat on Facebook. And do all of these things not only on your desktop or laptop computer, but from your handheld device as well! It's quite amazing when you stop to think of what communication was like when I grew up decades ago. Now you are never out of the loop and can virtually instantly communicate with anyone, any where. 

And that's a good thing...until...

I was witness to a huge blowup in a relationship between a couple of friends with all the accompanying hurt feelings and drama...and it all had to do with the use of digital media to communicate rather than talking on the phone or face-to-face. There is no question this happens more than we realize across this modern land.

So from an old guy who remembers corded, rotary phones with party lines, here are some general reasons for picking up the phone instead of the keypad or keyboard:

1) The receiver cannot see body language nor can he hear tone of voice. Those provide a substantial amount of additional information to the words that are actually said. With digital media, all you get are the words.

2) The sender finds it far too simple to type strong words and phrases on a screen and hit send. It's easy to type something you would never say to the person face-to-face. Just look at any contentious blog comment thread. Are these people really that nasty in person? I certainly hope not, or I fear for my country!

3) The sender has presuppositions in what he writes and the receiver has presuppositions in what he receives. Those presuppositions are probably not the same, and yet they color what is written and what is understood...probably falsely. The sender's presuppositions could cause him to write something that isn't true given the reality of the receiver's world and the receiver's presuppositions could easily cause him to misinterpret the sender's motives. And the die is then cast for conflict and hurt. 

4) When an email is sent on a contentious issue, every single point the sender wants to say is addressed all at once, wrapped up in a hard little ball, and sent straight at the receiver's face at the speed of light. So instead of being able to deal with the points one at a time, something which would probably alter the direction of the conversation because of the give and take and clarification that occurs (basically clarifying the presuppositions from point #3), all of the points hit at once. That results in hurt and anger on the receiving end, which results in a reply of similar type, which results in hurt and anger to the original sender, which results in another reply, and another, and another...and the spiral downward continues. 

Today's generation will say that texting/e-mail is just the way they communicate. Maybe so. And as long as the topics are of minor emotional importance, that is fine. But as soon as a topic arises that could potentially hurt feelings, the digital needs to give way to the vocal.

How do you do this?

As a sender, discipline yourself to never start a digital conversation under such terms. Pick up the phone. If you don't have a phone or a number, then wait. The potential for relational damage is far too great.

As a receiver, discipline yourself to hit the delete key as soon as it is obvious you have received such a communication. Don't even finish it because it will only hurt and anger you. Instead, pick up the phone and call. 

Make these your own habits and then teach them to your children. They will balk at first, but will thank you for it in the end.

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