Studies always show that the majority of communication between people is in their body language and tone, not their words. So as our world becomes more and more digitized, removing both, the curious effects of email, texts, IM’s or even status updates continues to grow. Many years ago I had an argument with someone (“So’nso”) on the phone. There were loud voices, the dispute went unresolved and both of us hung up, simmering like cauldrons of water. So you know what I did? I took that energy and channeled it into one, big, long, well-worded, heavily vetted email. I got it all out. There were bullet points and numbers and if/then statements and just about everything else that goes into a well-worded argument, in addition to thinly and not-so-thinly veiled digs. The satisfying click of that Send button felt like the launch of the Enola Gay. I couldn’t wait for So’nso to take that, god damn it.
But a funny thing happened as I watched the plane sail into the Cloud: I read the email one more time. Now I wasn’t reading it through the lens of what was churning in my head, but what would be searing So’nso’s screen. It felt very different. I didn’t like it. I wanted to reach into my computer and take a lot of it back. We eventually buried our hatchet, but I resolved to never send another email that represented anger, frustration or anything in between.
Email was a shield to conflict. When you totally remove a crucial piece—response—you have an unrestricted canvas. There is no body language or tone to absorb, and the void can let us go too far. Maybe that’s how we “truly feel.” Or maybe we don’t have anyone to keep our communications in check and our mind races. The back and forth of discussion is lost when you unload everything at once. It’s not a reaction our brains are programmed for; we are programmed to interact and react, not act unilaterally. For better or for worse, email hides us.
And then there is receiving and reading. A beautiful black and white photo resonates more than a beautiful color photo because there is a subconscious, intertwining experience as we “fill in” the palette, and thus, are drawn into the picture. Similarly, great novels leave you with just the right amount of information and emotion, letting you do the rest of the work to wrap yourself into the story. We feel included in the scene or experience because we’re supplying the emotions, not the artist. Part of me believes that there is a similar mechanism firing in the brain when we receive a curt message with innocent intentions. We paint the emotional piece because there isn’t one, and often it seems that piece lives close to an insecurity or something else near the top of the pot.
Take the following conversation:
A: Are you mad about something?
A: When I texted, asking if you were around to do something, you only responded with “sure.”
B: Well…err…that’s because I am around…to do something…. (And was responding while on my way to catch a bus/talking to someone/in a meeting/running to the bathroom/etc)
Emotions were heightened because there was no emotion.
The ability to reread adds an additional layer. If we get a message we don’t like, we typically review it a few (hundred) times. We take it apart. We focus on a piece of wording, how the thought was organized or even something that wasn’t mentioned. As the message sits, and you review, you can find yourself so invested that you feel like you’ve actually been talking to the person the entire time when all you’re doing is staring at a screen. It becomes a heightened echo. No matter the emotion, it’s magnified, and usually later, upon honest self-reflection, we bashfully admit: “Yeah, I probably got a little too worked up about that.”
There are others: Playful but unexpected sarcasm rarely translates over the wires. Response time causes angst to the sender when they want a reply. Caps and exclamations points elicit numerous interpretations. All of these are a result of 1’s and 0’s taking the place of tone and body language. We all know that technology is “changing the way we communicate” but evolution is moving at far slower speeds and because of it, our core communication centers struggle to adapt. As the next Twitter emerges and we get used to grandparents sporting iPhones, it will be fascinating but important to observe how the change interacts with our untrained brains, and more importantly, how we’re fundamentally altering them for the future.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at