Like everything in our world, there are pluses and minuses to the technology that allows us to communicate digitally. Since we all know that part of communication includes a variety of non-verbal cues, communication that does not allow for those cues can be filled with pitfalls. In an article which I recently read from The Atlantic, there was a great discussion regarding the impact of digital communication on our lives and language. One of the points which the author made in the article was that digital communication can lead to a variety of misunderstandings. These misunderstandings stem from different aspects of the communication.
First, since the receiver of the communication cannot see the facial expressions of the person communicating, it can be hard to determine the mood of the person. Is the communicator in a good mood and therefore the comments are intended to be humorous? Is the communicator angry and the words should be understood as an expression of anger? Is the communicator tired, or stressed, or confused? All of these can be difficult to determine if you are not able to see the facial expressions and the posture of the communicator.
Second issue involves the receiver. Just as mood can impact the communication from the communicator’s position, mood can impact how the message is received. If I am in a negative mood, I might respond negatively to even the most benign comment. Also, if I am preoccupied mentally, I can easily misread or misunderstand the message.
Digital communication also eliminates fluctuations in the tone of voice of the communicator. The sound cues that help us to interpret what is trying to be communicated are not there. Much like the impact of the absence of facial and body cues, the absence of audio cues makes it very difficult to understand the tenor of the message.
The article from The Atlantic which I read, pointed out that the invention of emoticons was precipitated by these struggles in digital communication. The emoticon is supposed to help to provide those non-verbal and audio cues which will assist the receiver of the message in interpreting the message. The problem is that not a lot of people use the emoticons except in text messages or when tweeting. Most people do not include them in emails, especially not ones of a professional or work-related nature. So those “helps” do not exist and leave open great possibilities of misinterpretation.
All of this reminds me of the importance of one of the chief rules of communication — seek clarification, restate what you perceive is being communicated, and then seek clarification again.