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Understanding and text-based communication (like the Internet)

Posted by on June 19, 2007

As I’ve had access to the Internet from home since 1999, I’m no stranger to text-based communication such as online fora, e-mail, mailing lists and blog sites. And being as shy as I am, I have generally preferred it, as it can sometimes be the only way I am able to speak up and express my opinions. This doesn’t mean there are no misunderstandings. “Flame wars” can be a common consequence of misunderstandings online (they also come out of other disagreements, but those are irrelevant to this post).

Having recently gone through an online occurrence that I saw as a misunderstanding, I spoke to a counsellor with a psychology degree friend of mine who told me some high figure percentage (something between 78-90%, I forget exactly) of communication comes from voice inflection, facial expression and body language, and when we’re in vulnerable situations, anything we see or read as attacking or lashing out against our fears, scares us and does not always allow us to see the entire picture.

I have largely been a believer of trying to maintain face-to-face communication wherever possible for the past few years (since about 2003) because I like to get the whole picture, and not worry about delayed reactions. This was a large contributing factor for me suggesting to Jeremy when we met online that we meet in person only three days later. However, I wasn’t aware of this predatory/reactionary behaviour until this past weekend. It makes a lot of sense to me, though, having just read something as negative toward me when the person probably had her best intentions and my best interest at heart. It’s something I know I do quite often, now that I’ve been made aware of it, and I’m sure others have construed my words in the same way.

I also think that most people are to some extent self-centred, which can be magnified on the Internet, and therefore words can be taken a lot more personally than they might otherwise be taken during the standard course of a conversation where we are able to explain our point of view immediately, before a statement can be taken to heart and be allowed to fester. I know I’ve reacted this way in the past, and I’m sure other people do.

Maybe this is why I like film so much. Film is a visual medium, and therefore should be able to encompass all facets of communication such as facial expressions, body language, tone of voice – and it can be 100% controlled by the director, so if the message isn’t being accurately portrayed, the director will find another way to show what s/he wants. The advantage of film also is that close up shots can magnify certain points you want your audience to see.

Lastly, a great friend once told me that people generally only like to show us the selves they want us to see. I genuinely agree with this, as I have seen it exercised a number of times. It’s not even about the level of trust someone might have for one person. When my mum was ill with cancer in 2005, she tried so hard to keep up appearances when she had visitors so they would believe she would survive and things were okay, when in reality she was struggling so hard to do much of anything. As her carer, I saw the worst of what she could show to anyone, but there is no doubt in my mind that she suffered more than that. And sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are too hard to explain in words. You can only gain the same level of understanding of a situation through experiencing it first hand for yourself. Situations like cancer and other illnesses, blindness and other disabilities, grief from the death of a loved one, or even raising a family. None of these situations can be compared as they differ so greatly from each other.

Disclaimer: I keep thinking that one day I may like to study psychology just for my own personal interest. I judge situations from my own personal psychological perspective often enough that it’d probably be better if I had the theory to back it up properly.

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Dominica has a strong interest in exploring diversity in media, seeing people subverting corporate control of creativity through crowdfunding and indie publishing, and spending as much time as she can travelling the world and discovering culture. This is what she most regularly blogs about. In her spare time, Dominica is primarily focused on long-form improv theatre, and writing and publishing speculative fiction. You can find links to some of her free and published stories and screenplays on her writing page, or check out her pirate time-travel novel Adrift. Though born and raised in Australia to American parents, Dominica lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2008-2014, until she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She also has a background in web programming, filmmaking, and stand-up comedy. For more information, check out her about page, or any of the specific pages about her various creative pursuits in the links at the top of the page.

4 Responses to Understanding and text-based communication (like the Internet)

  1. terminus

    The limitations of online communication can be considered an advantage rather than a disadvantage, however. I am writing about this for my thesis. To quote from it:

    Virtual communities have the potential to be very well suited to the deliberative democratic model, in that they tend to cut across divisions of class, race and gender to a greater extent than real life communities, allowing participants to organise themselves along lines of underlying shared interests. Since an early study found electronic communications to mediate differences in status and expertise, further research has suggested that hierarchies are devalued within virtual communities in part because of the failure of the medium to transmit social context cues of dominance associated with status, race and gender. Research has also shown that online fora thereby allow participants in small group discussions to talk with increased frankness, and to experience greater participation and more equality than in faceto-face discussions. Or in the words of the classic New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

    Furthermore, the percentage figure she gave you is pure opinion and cannot be taken literally. Although non-verbal means of communication are effective at conveying emotional state, they are very crude and ineffective at carrying any other information. Thus it is only plausible that 78-90% of meaning can be conveyed non-verbally if the speech act is primarily designed to communicate emotion. (Can you imagine me conveying the message of my thesis through interpretive dance?) And even then, as I also wrote in my thesis:

    These limitations can be partially addressed by educating participants in online discussions to make their mood, tone of voice or actions known, where relevant, by textual means. These include the use of emoticons such as the ubiquitous smiley :-), the use of capital letters to indicate shouting, and by describing one’s actions as one performs them (for example in IRC this may be done by typing “/me shakes his head,” which renders the code “/me” as the user’s pseudonymous screen name). Deliberation in a virtual reality environment such as Second Life also allows the possibility of directing one’s avatar (virtual persona) to adopt the facial expressions, body language or actions that the user would present in face-to-face deliberation—or at least, those that she would consciously present, and therefore desire to be transmitted.

    I studied a little psychology in my commerce degree, and have studied a little more for my PhD, but one of the reasons why I tend to distrust psychologists and psychiatrists is that they always try to over-simplify things such as this, rather than presenting you with the empirical data and allowing you to draw your own conclusion.

    • Dom

      A couple of points, Jeremy:
      1) Second Life isn’t text based, which what my argument was focusing on.
      2) One of the reasons I wish to study psychology at some point is so I don’t have to rely on what I hear from other trained psychologists.
      3) I don’t think I was suggesting that you can convey all messages without text or words. But I do think it is possible. How often do I ask you “what’s wrong?” based solely on the way you’re acting, and what you’re not saying?
      4) Surely I am entitled to my own opinion, too, and thus should not blindly follow my husband’s beliefs? 😉 (I might add I am tempted to write a blog entry about areas where our opinions do differ, and state that it is still possible to live in harmony, despite how huge the areas are where our opinions differ).

  2. terminus

    Like I said – messages about emotional state. But how much of human communication is about emotions? OK, between women, maybe most of it. But between men, comparatively very little.

  3. Frank Corless

    As I read I found myself thinking how similar this writing sounds like some of the things I’ve shared on my own Yahoo Blog. Elements of me and your mum sure do come through.

    I have some temptation here wanting to get involved in the discussion somewhat but won’t except to say that men comunicate from mind not feeling is a generality. I as male am aware that I always communicated more emotionally than your mother who had a very logical mind. Having been reading in psychology most of my life and other human behaviour areas always recognizing that I no doubt screen it with an artists mind seem to think that feelings are always present but often not noticed by the conscious person as they communicate. It takes a commitment to be one’s own observer to ones thoughts and writing and other energy communication of the person to start to see how feelings that have been suppressed pop back out when the mind encounters similar patterns in current situations to unresolved situations of the past. The thing is emotions aren’t good or bad when they come up. They are just sign posts or symptoms that something is being stirred up and if open we can look at it and grow from them. Instead most people faced with emotion who don’t have tools to look will either tend to sublimate them or respond to them as a child in a reactive way adding more emotion. I guess what I’m saying is that as I mature I am finding more and more that when miscommunication happens it is generally because the two communicators haven’t the similar experience to connect the dots. Each has limited information and their is a breakdown. Only more communication looking at the situation from different angles can broaden the perception provided both communicators remain open. Perhaps one of the reasons I like Edward de Bono. His tools often give us ways of examing those breakdowns and get things back on track.

    Here it was I was only going to share a single point and went on. Just like me. Then again I’ve never been a very disciplined writer. Take what you can use and throw the rest out.

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