Not quite a digital native, I am part of a generation that is minding the digital gap. I wrote postcards from summer camp, exchanged handwritten letters with my grandmother and still send cards to loved ones on occasion. But I also remember the big buzz around the advent of email. More recently, and admittedly more reluctantly, I have joined the masses of texters, electronic chatterers and (audible "eek!") tweeters.
Navigating this brave new world, I fight against the impulse of skepticism. After all, new methods of communication may enhance the boundaries of our interactions, for example by facilitating close contact despite geographical distance. At the same time, digital communication can widen the gap of miscommunication between us.
A few weeks back, for example, I kept a text message to a family member brief because I was about to lose phone service when the train went underground. The shortness of my note caused concern. Thankfully, my family member followed up for reassurance that all was well with me and between us.
A patient of mine recently described drowning in some digital quicksand after an argument with her friend: The day after their fight, the friend repeatedly instant messaged. My patient was in a meeting and unable to immediately respond. When she wrote back, her friend indicated that it was obvious to her that the patient was not remorseful because she had not responded to the earlier messages. The dispute escalated.
Is technology the culprit? It's impossible to know for certain, but a growing body of research investigating the impact of new media on human relationships does invite finger-pointing. For example, recent surveys indicate that in the U.S., text-messaging is the most common cell-phone activity and in young people, text-based dialogue (i.e., instant messaging) is the most frequent method of digital communication. Yet text-based communication is associated with weaker bonding between two individuals as compared to video or in-person interactions.
That online communication lacks the usual signals of emotion and attention is both obvious and empirically proven (and arguably, may be true of snail mail too). Findings from a recent investigation suggest that our biological response differs between online and in-person interactions, with the latter more likely to induce an increase in the bonding-related hormone oxytocin. That said, some couples do report that online communication methods have allowed them to resolve an argument that was difficult to resolve face-to-face.
Thus, the blame game seems neither fair nor productive (and when is it, really?). Instead, let's use our energy to problem-solve digital dilemmas, to evaluate how to use available communication pathways, and to decide when to say TTYL8R and opt for face-to-face conversations:
1. Respect the character limit. Texts and tweets have character limits for a reason. These modes of communication are best suited for brief interactions -- confirming plans, sending a short note of support or a reminder -- rather than lengthy conversations.
2. Beware of tone deafness. The tone with which you type -- particularly a sarcastic sentiment or joke -- may not be the tone with which your message is read. Consider developing shorthand or using a pre-existing source of digital etiquette (even Emily Post's great-great-grandson has a word or two on this) with your partner. Maybe it's indicating when you are JK (just kidding!), VENTING FRUSTRATION (all CAPS), or using italics or *asterisks,* to signal sarcasm.
3. If it's a serious matter, consider whether or not your mode of communication reflects that. What are the benefits of sharing serious news or concerns over text, chat, or email? Could the use of new technologies increase chances of miscommunication? How might your relationship or sense of self be strengthened if you choose to face matters of consequence in person (or if long-distance, then by video chat)?
4. Put yourself in your communication partner's shoes. Ever find yourself unable to promptly respond to a text message because you are otherwise occupied? Ever get an email that demanded a thought-out response for which you did not have an immediate answer or the time to craft it? Ever find that an instant message dialogue is taking you into sensitive territory, as you sit in a bustling office? If you are upset that your text, email or chat remark is not met with immediate response, try to remember that the recipient may not be available or ready to respond for any number of reasons, most of which you have probably experienced too.
5. Take a digital time-out. If what started as a straightforward digital interaction has become fraught, especially if you or your partner is overheating, step away from your device! Technology facilitates fast communication, but it does not necessitate it. A break will help you gain perspective and clarify your thoughts. If you absolutely cannot let the conversation go, consider a longer-form method -- while snail mail is so last century, email is only so last decade.
Though the possible communication choices are plentiful and quickly evolving, the pace of technological advancement will not outpace our need to communicate. And we (me, my patient and even you, reader) are all in it together. As we navigate these new technologies, let's be patient with one another. Because, be it through modern or old-fashioned communication methods, we are all trying to provide information, convey empathy, express love, longing and frustration. To connect.