The One Rule of Electronic Communication

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In her TEDTalk "We Are All Cyborgs Now," cyborg anthropologist Amber Case asserts that technology helps us be more human, connect with each other, and live our lives more fully. As a clinical social worker and self-proclaimed technology junkie, I couldn't agree more. I'm particularly interested in how electronic communication impacts relationships. My doctoral research explored the use of email in the context of talk therapy -- I wanted to understand how emailing between therapy sessions was affecting the relationship between therapist and client.

As I interviewed therapists who had used email in their clinical practices, I came to realize something that Amber Case stated so eloquently: "the most successful technology... ends up being more human than technology because we are co-creating each other all the time." What this means is that even as it becomes increasingly relevant and sophisticated, technology is also flawed. When equally flawed humans use it to connect and communicate, there are bound to be problems. These problems are not new; I'm talking about the misunderstandings that inevitably arise as we navigate the tricky waters of expressing nuanced and imperfect feelings in the context of complex relationships and a world that moves far too fast for most of us. It is tempting to blame technology and search for the solution in a software update, faster connection, or stronger signal. Yet our cell phones and computers are not the guilty parties. Rather, it is the way we use them that can either make our lives much easier or much, much harder.

Just as there are choices we can make to improve the nature and outcome of face-to-face communication, there are also things we can do to decrease the likelihood of problems over email, texting, and social networking. My years of personal experience and professional practice and research have led me to one rule that governs all of my electronic communication: I never email about anything important. (The same rule applies to text messaging, tweeting, social networking, etc.)

I came to this rule after a relationship with a close friend was irrevocably damaged by email confusion during my freshman year in college, and I've rarely violated it since. Each of us has to decide where our line in the sand is, and mine is around relationships. I email and text with almost everyone in my life, about kids and work and jokes and books and holidays and house repairs and health questions (yes, I even email with my doctor). As a writer and blogger, I use the internet to explore religion and politics and values and meaning and many other topics that matter deeply to me. But I don't use screens and keyboards to address or process or resolve relationship issues. (The one exception to this may be video chatting, which I rarely do. That may change in the future for me.)

My connections, with my family, friends, clients, and colleagues, are, without a question, the most important thing in my life and I don't trust them to technology. The minute my internal radar starts to get a little twitchy, the minute I get the sense that there might be anger, confusion, or sadness on the other end of the internet, I pick up the phone. If I can't do that, I send a response that looks something like this: "I'm so glad you emailed/texted/tweeted me about this. It's really important, and I'd love to find a time to talk on the phone or over coffee. What works for you?"

We may be evolving alongside technology, but there are still a few ways in which computers just can't compete. I have yet to find a combination of fonts, embellishments, and emoticons that truly represent the range and complexity of human emotion. Words communicate a lot, but we miss out on crucial information when we can't hear tone of voice or the brief pause in someone's response. In person is best; there is much to be learned from the crossing of arms and legs, the look in someone's eyes. When there is something important on the line -- whatever that may be for each of us -- it deserves more of ourselves than we can offer electronically.

As we head into the new year, it might be a good time to consider what is most important to us -- perhaps our creative endeavors or a complicated work project or a relationship that has been particularly sticky -- and decide whether or not technology has a place in that area of our lives. I'll continue to use my computer and cell phone to connect about virtually everything. Everything except the important stuff.

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