Friday, September 16, 2005


Written (mis)communication

For me, getting to know people is hard work. Like the seemingly aloof and proud Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, I am not blessed with the type of manners that easily recommend me to strangers, or to put it in the modern vernacular, I am a socially competent introvert. Although this is hard work for me, I can manage alright so long as I can have enough face-to-face time with the person. However, when my primary contact with a person is via the Internet--email, instant messaging, etc.--I have so far found the task of getting to know people to be nearly impossible.

At first glance, this is a rather strange problem. You'd think I have all sorts of advantages that would make the Internet a great communications vehicle for me. For one thing, I'm adept with computers and software, and for another, I'm blessed with an above-average ability to express myself in writing. In fact, I find that there are many thoughts that I can express far more easily in writing than by speaking.

So what's my problem? Why is it so difficult for me to express myself to others or for me to rightly judge others via the written word? Why do I have such difficulty with this whereas so many folks gladly tell of how they met their "special someone" online?

Part of the responsibility, I think, I must claim for myself. Whereas some people are gifted with personalities that are easily "read" even via written communication, my personality is such that I tend to project an Internet image that can seem quite different than what I'm really like. For instance, on this blog I boldly hold forth at length on many subjects, but in conversation I'm often content to sit and listen while others share their ideas. Now, the picture you may get of me from my writings on this blog do give you an accurate impression of what I'm thinking, but this picture is incomplete: there's a great deal about me--what I think, do, and feel--that isn't reflected in this blog, whether because it's difficult to express it in writing or simply because I haven't yet gotten around to writing about this or that. Perhaps I'm the type of person who's difficult to size up based upon a first or second impression. If so, this would help explain why it's been so very difficult for me to get to know people online.

As for the rest of the responsibility for my difficulty, I continue to be persuaded that there are fundamental limitations to email/IM/etc.--nay, the written word in general--that make it difficult to impossible to express many things. As such, these limitations hinder not only my efforts to reveal myself to others, but also the efforts of others to reveal themselves to me. With all due respect to stop-gaps such as emoticons, email offers no substitute for the cues of body language, tone of voice, etc., that are available in face-to-face conversation. Moreover, email provides no good means for interactive conversation. If I'm talking with you over lunch and I say something that strikes you as odd, you can ask me for clarification, which I would then willingly offer, and so forth, but if I write something in email that strikes you as odd, my words sit there on your computer's monitor as though they were set forth in granite for all time. You have all the time you wish to read and re-read my words and develop whatever interpretation seems most likely to you, but this liberty also affords you the potential to misinterpret what I've written, something that's exceedingly easy to do, especially when ours is a new acquaintance and you lack the necessary context information with which to understand my meaning. If you do encounter a passage that puzzles or mystifies you, you of course have the liberty to ask me for clarification, but once my reply arrives in your inbox, you are once again left to interpret or misinterpret my words.

To be honest, I think this problem with written communication is less severe for some folks than it is for me. As I suggest in the title of this blog, I can be a bit "inscrutable" in some ways, especially during the early stages of an acquaintance, whereas other folks put themselves across more readily via writing. In other words, they're easier to figure out compared to folks like me. Assuming that there's any truth to this observation, it may help explain why certain folks manage to start lasting, thriving relationships online whereas others (like me up to this point) have no success.

Given this seemingly insoluble problem with email and the old-fashioned letter, what is one to do when one can't visit or talk on the phone? Well, the Internet has given us a new tool: instant messaging. Now, at last, we have a means for using the written word as though we were having a face-to-face or telephone chat, right? In my experience, no. With the IM clients I've used, they provide the means for sending short messages just fine, but where they fall woefully short is in providing ways for the parties to keep in sync with each other. The client I've used most often does tell you when the other person is typing a message, but I find that this feature is less than accurate: sometimes my chat buddy is typing something more, but just as often he's waiting for me to say something (I suspect the "Joe is typing a message" feature can be fooled if Joe starts to type something then backspaces over it). Moreover, IM, like email, provides very poor tools for expressing emotion and inflection. With IM and email, there are precisely two tones of voice--"normally loud" and "VERY LOUD" (all caps denotes shouting)--and no good way to distinguish, for instance, an off-hand humorous comment from a statement you wish to be taken at face value. What with all these shortcomings, I have come to dislike IM even more strongly than email.

However, I have not come to bury the written word. A thousand times nay! Instead, I am firmly persuaded that written communication is unparalleled when it is used for the purposes for which it's suited. I think email is well-suited for business use and casual friendly banter, so long as both parties adopt the attitude of interpreting each other's words in the most positive light whenever possible, because if they have a misunderstanding via email, it's going to be very difficult to straighten it out without recourse to good old fashioned conversation. Also, I think the written word is a fine way for intimate acquaintances who are separated by distance to keep in touch. Although the same type of misunderstandings I've discussed earlier can arise for those who are close to each other, I think the risk is greatly reduced because in this case the parties have enough context with which to interpret what the other has written. For an example of this use of written communication, I recommend Ken Burns' 1990 documentary, The Civil War for its many quotes from personal letters of people of that time, especially the marvelous letter of soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife.

So what of the plight of a Christian single such as myself? How am I to safely and wisely use the Internet to meet single Christian women? This is a matter that I'm still wrestling with, but at this
point I've settled on this procedure:

  1. A new acquaintance that's carried on exclusively via email/chat/etc. is to be considered to be casual, period. Any thoughts that the relationship is anything but a casual friendship ought to be rejected.
  2. Should the two parties start to think that they'd like to see about a more "serious" relationship, they ought to start talking on the phone at very least, and ideally start having regular face-to-face meetings. This is not to say that visits automatically make a relationship serious--it can be perfectly appropriate for casual online friends to meet face-to-face within certain bounds--but rather that a serious relationship will concentrate on face-to-face or verbal communication and downplay the use of email.
  3. As the two parties become intimately acquainted with each other, learning more of each other's true character, they may feel free to use email/chat/etc. as a secondary means of communication.

I am hopeful that if I hold my use of the written word within these constraints that I will avoid, and help my new friends avoid, the common pitfall of written miscommunication and misunderstanding.

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