I recently witnessed several surprising examples of  miscommunication on Twitter and Skype. Tension rose between people I thought were friends and harsh words were typed. How could congenial conversation suddenly turn ugly?

3304884833_21fec0acb5_zCommunication is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon that many of us take for granted. We talk with our hands, our eyes, and our whole bodies at times. We also communicate within the context of our culture; we speak in accents and familiar phrases. We pick up on subtle vocal inflections that speak volumes. Many people are surprised to learn that our word choices make up a surprisingly small fraction of how we convey meaning to others. Ask anyone who cares for a non-verbal person or interacts regularly with someone who speaks a different language: a lot of communication is non-verbal.

When interacting with social media, we really ought to take this into consideration, both sending messages and interpreting them. Sarcasm in text is a great example where intended meaning is often misunderstood. Several articles have been written about how to do this well, yet missed meaning is still common. There are more subtle examples though, such as one person’s short response, “No,” to a lengthy statement by another. An argument may ensue, yet the real meaning of the initial response might simply have been, “I disagree, but I’m busy now. We can discuss it later.” On more than one occasion, I’ve witnessed people disagreeing only to realize their positions were actually the same or similar.

We also have to take into consideration the medium we’re conversing in. Twitter is asynchronous; following the thread can be difficult, but that thread provides the context in which meaning has to be derived. As others join the debate, it may even begin to feel like a group ganging up on the person sharing the minority position. Skype group conversations are more synchronous. The thread of conversations is retained and there is more opportunity to ask for clarification without the 140-character limitation of Twitter. Nonetheless, misunderstandings are common.

IMG_0013Occasionally we start relationships in online settings and later get to meet in real life. People look, act, move, and react in ways that may be a surprise: our online personas are merely a reflection–often not a complete one–of who we are. The more time we spend together, the more we reconcile those two personas and the more we truly get to know one another. When the in-person time ends and we return to online conversations, we at least can begin to interpret messages in a new context.

Sadly, conflict is still inevitable. It’s unlikely that the person we met, talked with, and laughed with has changed significantly. So the next time we’re offended by something that happens online, let’s remember there’s a real person behind it and look for the source of what may simply be a misunderstanding. It’s probably not personal.

Thanks for reading

Rock ’em Sock ’em photo courtesy Flikr user Garth Johnson.


It’s Not Personal — 2 Comments

  1. Great points here, Tom. We almost need a new communications model that takes electronic media into consideration. I say “almost”. ;-)

    The problem with a lot of electronic discourse conflicts can be boiled down to PEBKAC. On both sides.

    • Truth. Witnessed a painful misunderstanding in real live just after posting this article and my first thought was there wasn’t even a keyboard involved. I rationalized it as a big cultural issue (two very different backgrounds), failure to read body language, and one person’s humor that was offensive to the other. And no keyboard…

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