A virtual organization and an expat’s long-distance friendships means my face-to-face meetings and close conversations are sadly infrequent. So a lot of my business and personal communication is, by necessity, done in writing. I seldom send anything by postal mail unless it involves requires a real signature on a contract or a significant event, relying mostly on emails for everyday keeping-in-touch.
For more immediate thoughts, I rely on a messaging app, generally via phone text, Facebook, Skype, or WhatsApp. I like being able to poke a note directly into someone’s hand, where I’ll get a rapid acknowledgement that they’ve seen it and (often) an immediate answer to a simple question.
But one response begets another, and exchanges quickly turn conversational. When light and casual, it’s a nice measured way to catch up on gossip and bind a friendship. However, when talk turns to serious or difficult topics, things break down badly. Misunderstandings occur more frequently in text conversations than in any other medium I use; people’s attitudes and feelings are distorted and my biases and worries sound more pronounced. And, too often, I end up tediously spending precious face-time resolving the misperceptions.
A few others have also commented on the inadequacy of text messaging for sorting out strong emotions or confrontational questions. I’ve learned to be more self-aware when approaching that furrowed brow / tensing gut feeling while messaging, If I don’t stgep back altogether (Let’s come back to this later when I see you?), I have adopted a few guidelines to be mindful of:
- ‘Seen’ means a message has been received by the device, not that it has been read nor considered by the recipient. Above all, silence doesn’t signify that you’re being ignored or that s message has met with disapproval.
- Remember that texts are time- and location- stamped; they set an unintended context that can change the meaning of words.
- When messages are stark and blunt, they can evoke strong emotions. Do take a moment and don't react to texts that feel provocative.
- Humor simply doesn’t work in most text conversations, even when punctuated with emoticons.
- Avoid having multiple streams in a conversation. The juxtaposition of comments in one thread with responses from another can lead to bad, bad misinterpretations. Stick to one conversation, pause occasionally, and sync up regularly: make transitions obvious.
- Check the temperature periodically and give clear signals. 80% of normal communication (tone, expression, gesture, prosody) is lost in texts, and you can get way out of bounds without realizing it.
- Avoid head-down mad-dash typing when feeling strongly. It’s hard to keep up with, and answers fly off the screen without being read if you don’t stop and look up regularly.
- Let the conversation pull you rather than pushing it in the direction you want it to go. Stop to trade control of the conversation.
- Watch out for accidently inserting homophones when using voice-recognition (hands-free) transcription, and recognize that cross-cultural differences in vocabulary and nuance can be deadly.