Embracing a Shadow–Technology-enabled Communication

An online relationship with Robert never would have worked. He didn’t email, text, Twitter or update a Facebook status. When we met in 1993, people didn’t have those modes of communication available anyway. Well, a few people had email, but I didn’t use email until 1997!

I’ll never forget the first time I met Robert. It was at a nursing home in San Diego. My children, toddlers at the time, and I participated in a nursing home visitation project. The idea behind the project was to brighten the lives of the residents with the laughter and playfulness of children.  As we entered the facility, a strong antiseptic odor assaulted my nose. This masked the milder odor of urine. My children didn’t seem to notice. In the visiting lobby, the residents, most sitting in wheel chairs, had been arranged into a circle. As I looked around, my gaze fell upon a man whose clouded eyes had probably been sightless for many years. Glancing at his name tag, I approached him with a friendly, “Hello, Robert.” Robert did . . . nothing. There was no response. Thinking perhaps he might be hard of hearing, I repeated myself, a little louder, “Hello Robert! How are you doing?” Again, no response. He was as stiff as a statue. I was beginning to wonder if he was dead. I studied him for a moment and could discern that he was indeed breathing. So, I drew very close, grasped his hand gently and yelled my greeting, “HI, ROBERT!” At that moment, it was as if a veil, a shroud, over his mind had been lifted. His hand tightened around my own—I could almost feel an electricity surge between us and he tilted his head upward and said, “Hey, lady, I’m blind not deaf!” We both laughed. We connected. Robert may not have seen me with his eyes, but he saw me with his heart. It was the beginning of a beautiful, although short, relationship.

We never would have connected or communicated online.

It’s only 16 years later, but a completely different world. We spend a great deal of time communicating online or through texting. As fun and efficient as this technology-enabled communication is, I lament the loss of the richness of sensory input of in-person communication. This sensory input—the body language, the tone of voice, the surroundings, add layers of meaning and significance to ordinary encounters.

Body language and tone of voice, absent from email, Facebook, Twitter, texting, etc. can be critical components of communication. In 1971, a UCLA researcher, Albert Mehrabian, found that three elements account for how much we like someone who is communicating feelings: tone of voice accounts for 38%, body language accounts for 55% and words account for 7%. These 3 elements are often called the 3 V’s of communication: Visual, Vocal and Verbal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Mehrabian.

Communication, at least at the feeling level, without the visual or the vocal elements is like embracing a shadow. Ultimately unfulfilling. And, oh so open to misinterpretation!

“You are brilliant,” a friend recently wrote me in an email. I think she meant to be complementary, but I could be wrong!

People will misinterpret the tone of an email 50 percent of the time, but believe they got it right 90% of the time according to research reported in Wired http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/02/70179.

Have you ever had your intent misinterpreted in an email? Not a good feeling.

Try saying this sentence 4 times, each time placing the emphasis on a different word, shifting the meaning:

1. You are brilliant! (as opposed to me or others)

2. You are brilliant! (I’m so surprised!)

3. You are brilliant! (that was such a good idea)

4. You are brilliant. (sarcastic tone implying just the opposite)

To reduce misinterpretation in email, you can use emoticons, such as “:)” to let the recipient know your friendly intent. But, you risk giving the impression that you are mentally still in middle school. A better idea is to write conversationally and to read the email out loud, both as you intended it and in the opposite tone of voice to catch any problems. But, there will still be misinterpretations.

If you really want to have a heart-to-heart communication, to see the other person with your heart, talk in-person.

Diane’s website


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

One Response to Embracing a Shadow–Technology-enabled Communication

  1. Pingback: What Ever Happened to Face-to-Face Conversation? « Small Talk, Big Results

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