We Cannot Not Communicate — Unless We’re Texting!

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It might be true that we cannot not communicate, but when it comes to email and texting, what we’re communicating might not be what we intend — even when the recipient is a friend who knows us well.

There’s an principle fundamental to the proponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming: we cannot not communicate. What this means is that whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, we humans are almost always communicating, and we communicate in multiple ways and on multiple levels. Our tone of voice, our facial expressions, even our posture — these things tell a story well beyond the mere words we utter from our lips. Hand gestures, head nods, frowns and smiles, etc. all can add a lot to our words. Even silence can be a form of communication, as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the “silent treatment” from a relationship partner they’ve offended can tell you. So much of what we seek to convey to one another goes beyond mere words. And therein lies the rub for the inveterate text message sender or emailer: it’s really hard to communicate all the subtleties that accompany most human communication with just characters on a screen.

Electronic messaging addicts have a wide variety of tools to help them convey some of the emotional “extras” that make up so much of human communication. They have smiley-face and frowny-face emoji that they can tack on to texts. And they have exclamatory shorthand like “OMG!” and “LOL.” But these little devices come with a built-in hazard, because there’s no way to tell for sure what’s truly genuine — that is, how the person is really feeling. And many folks assume that when emailing or texting goes on between friends, the mutual knowledge of each other which the friends share ought to help ensure that the person on the receiving end of a message knows exactly how the sender feels. So, some researchers set out to find out if that assumption has any validity. And what they found was surprising.

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In Overconfidence at the Keyboard: Confidence and Accuracy in Interpreting Affect in E‐Mail Exchanges, published in the journal Human Communication Research, Chatham University researchers Monica A. Riordan and Lauren A. Trichtinger reported on whether friends of an email sender are better at correctly interpreting the emotional intentions of the sender. They conducted three studies in all. In the first two, they had message writers compose two emails, one depicting a scenario determined in advance and one freely composed. Each of the two emails also included the presence or absence of eight different emotions. The emails were then read by strangers, who rated each email for those same eight emotions. In the third study, the procedure was modified just a bit in that the emails were read by both friends and strangers. The writers of the messages expressed confidence that their friends would be more accurate in gauging their emotions than would the strangers. But this proved to be incorrect. The readers who were friends of the senders also believed they’d be more accurate than strangers at “reading” the emotions of the sent messages. This too proved to be incorrect. The findings held true even when the typical “tools” to aid emotional expression like all caps, exclamation points, etc. were included in the messages.

It seems that some important things — especially things of an emotional nature — are lost with some of our more modern and popular forms of communication. While there’s definitely truth to the principle that we can’t not communicate, it seems that the channels of communication we use have much to do with what various and subtle other messages that typically accompany human discourse actually get through. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether the person on the receiving end of those messages knows us well enough to draw inferences.

I’m old enough to remember writing letters when I had something important to communicate to someone I couldn’t speak to in person. I remember the kind of thought I had to put into the enterprise. For example, there was no “auto-correct” to depend on, so I had to take some care that the words were spelled correctly, written legibly, and that they made sense when put together. I remember vividly one particular letter I wrote to a dear friend, just as I recall her response to it. She noticed how my penmanship seemed to deteriorate as I got into the most emotionally charged part of the letter. And then there was that blurring of the ink in those places where a tear or two must have dropped on the page. She told me later how she’d “read between the lines” to glean what I was really trying to communicate. I recalled that memory as I was musing on the ways we typically communicate these days on our various electronic devices. On some level, these technological marvels appear to have brought us closer together and kept us “connected.” But to me, they all seem to lack intimacy. That’s why when I really have something to say, and it’s important that the other person truly hear all I’m trying to convey, I make an in-person appearance. And if that’s simply not possible, I put down the cellphone or the tablet and get out a pen and paper. As I see it, just in the mailing, another very important message is sent. After all, you cannot not communicate.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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