Toward More Helpful Communication

I continue to hold to a hope that there can
be constructive discourse. Some days I’m more hopeful than

Even when the evidence is to the contrary, I continue to hold to the hope that there can be constructive discourse in the United States. Some days I’m more hopeful than others.

One of the obstacles, paradoxically, is the communications technology that makes it possible to communicate instantaneously. What should at first glance be a great help can also be a great hindrance. This results from the reality that communications technologies, all technologies for that matter, have intrinsic qualities that require us to adjust to them. They create new language, new ways of interacting and new forms of individual behavior. These can be subtle, as the need to learn how to write in graffiti for notes on a Palm Pilot; or substantial, as in the changing work patterns that result from computerization.

In short, technology changes our lives in small ways and in huge ways. It’s our adjustment to these unique characteristics of technology that ultimately changes our lives for better or worse.

Sometimes it’s not easy to keep your feet on the ground when change is so pervasive. It’s difficult to assess what is real and what’s merely a perception of reality. Recently I talked with someone who was wondering why an e-mailed message had not received an immediate reply. To the sender it was urgent.

We talked of a vast range of possibilities. “Maybe I’m not as important to the person (who received the message) as I thought. What if the idea stinks and this is the way he’s telling me? I’ll bet he has another agenda and I didn’t see it.” Several other undesirable alternatives were raised.

Trying to bring a bit of perspective to the fear, I said, “What if he just went to use the restroom? He’s away from his computer and doesn’t know you’ve sent this? The lack of response is simply that.” We laughed, but the issue remains.

Instantaneous communication carries with it expectations of instantaneous response and when this expectation is not met we fill in the blanks with reasons all our own. They may have nothing to do with the objective reality and are more likely to reflect our own hopes or fears. Instant e-mail comes with the expectation that response will be instantaneous as well. But this isn’t always possible. What’s missing from e-mail is context–that of the sender and the receiver.

Lacking context, messages sent through this medium become disembodied, stripped of all but the face value of the message. In a situation as I’ve described above, we yearn for more completeness than a disembodied message can provide. Underneath this yearning, of course, is the desire for community. We are attempting to apply the fullness of a relationship with another person without the physical connection necessary to allow us to fill in the blanks of the disembodied message. This is where the problem occurs. We attempt to apply context that doesn’t exist in the technology–the body posture, tone of voice or facial expression.

On occasion when I’ve received an especially critical e-mail I’ve put in a telephone call to my detractor to talk with them directly. This introduces a new dynamic. A voice, while disembodied, is still more real than a message from the ether of the internet. More often than not, I discover that the writer isn’t really as angry as the note implies. And I discover that even if we continue to disagree the direct contact through realtime communication changes the nature of the dialogue.

It’s a bit more difficult for most of us to denigrate someone in realtime than in the impersonal medium of e-mail. As long as our interaction is limited to disembodied messages we’re stripped of our humanity. When we become human to each other, the nature of our interaction changes, most of the time.

This direct conversation with each other doesn’t come naturally to all of us. It’s uncomfortable. It’s causes a bit of uneasiness, if not fear. It requires us to find common ground.

But when we do this, we create a different dialogue, one that is more constructive and holds the potential for resolving problems rather than building higher fences. I believe, difficult as it is, this is a more hopeful path than firing off sharp messages that leave only damage and hurt in their wake.

I’m convinced that at least one contributing factor to the nastiness of the public discourse today is the influence of impersonal media that stand in the way of authentic community. Reliance upon them for sensitive information can isolate us and leave us less connected. They don’t build community, they change the character of our relationships.

It takes extra effort to overcome the deficits inherent in disembodied communication. We can do some things to help. Using language that is less rhetorical, for example. De-personalizing arguments. Seeking more information.

The tools of electronic and digital communication are valuable and important to us. In some instances they contribute to community. But each has its own strength and limits. Recognizing these, and working within them while also keeping in mind the need to respect the sacredness of human personality is something I’m challenged to remember daily.

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