Digital Communications: What’s Missing?

Blog · Jan 24, 2024

Virtual interactions are just, well, virtual. Most of the elements of successful communication are missing from these approximations of live human-to-human interaction.  Some virtual formats only exchange words, and others exchange only images.  Either way, they lack key elements of live human interactions.

The Chameleon Effect is the patterning one’s speech, attitudes, and gestures on those of the people we interact with in person.  While such a display is generally subconscious and may go unnoticed, mirroring establishes comfort and familiarity in face-to-face interactions.  Listeners mirror speakers by unconsciously copying their facial expressions.  Whether the speaker is smiling, frowning, or has an alternative look on their face, the listener will subconsciously emulate the speaker’s gestures and mannerisms in the course of the conversation.

The active listener mirrors the speaker to demonstrate that they’re paying attention to what is being said.  These active listening skills are essential to receiving the full message as intended.  Look the speaker in the eye.  Nod in acknowledgement.  Maintain a relaxed but attentive posture.  Focus your attention, listen for understanding, and make conscientious efforts to comprehend what is being said.  The active listener also strives to avoid distraction so as not to miss the speaker’s intended message.

 

Context Matters

During live interactions, people think about what they’re going to say, how they’re going to say it, which words they plan to emphasize, and how they believe it’s going to be received before they speak.

Attuned speakers will look for and pick up indications that the listener isn’t on the same page.  With that information, they can adjust the message or their approach in order to maximize the exchange of information.  By the same token,  listeners connect the words in the context of tone of voice, facial expressions, and posture to assemble the full meaning of what the speaker is saying.

The same isn’t true when it comes to digital communications.  There’s no such thing as virtual subtext, underlying meanings, or subliminal messaging because readers don’t know the other person’s sentiments when they post, unless, of course, THEY TYPE IT IN ALL CAPS.  Even an LOL, a JK, or a bunch of emojis or a couple of GIFs can’t guarantee how electronic messages will be received.

Plus, it’s difficult to quickly claw back a misunderstood missive.  That takes follow up posts that may or may not fully correct the misunderstanding. By then, a tone has been set.

In live, face-to-face interactions, speakers can change direction with what they say, switch things up, and improvise depending on the reactions of their listeners.  Listeners can ask follow-up questions for clarification.  However, in the incomplete digital space, when something is posted online, it’s there.  Forever. 

 

Things Don't Always Compute

Digital communication lacks other integrated factors in live interactions like emotion and identity.  When speakers interact with others in person, they can adjust their responses to how their listeners’ facial expressions reflect their emotions.

For instance, people don’t address those who look sad with hostility, and they don’t address those who look angry with aggression, unless perhaps they’re spoiling for a fight.

The point is live interactions with other people are dynamic interactions.  Since there’s no context, tone of voice, or easily discernible intention within the incomplete digital medium, it’s easier to dehumanize the person on the other side of the screen.  A speaker cannot determine the facial expression of a listener without a face, so therefore, the interaction is fraught with the potential for missing the target. 

 

Matters of Opinion

Both parties in an exchange have to make an effort to ensure the messages they see and post online are both understood and not easily misconstrued.

We can accommodate the gaps inherent in virtual communication by keeping an open mind and giving the poster the benefit of the doubt if we receive a message that may sound odd or unkind.  Unless the person you are engaging with is a perfect stranger, it is unlikely they intended to offend. 

Even strangers are less likely to intend offense. 

Thinking through what we post and considering how it could be misinterpreted will produce clearer exchanges of information.  Making observations with a positive approach, accepting other people’s opinions even if we don’t agree, and keeping an open mind can make virtual interactions more interesting, satisfying, and fun.

The Golden Rule advises that we treat others the way we want to be treated.  This notion predates the Digital Age by a few millennia, but the idea of reciprocity is as relevant today as ever. 

Maintaining a positive mindset and a conscious focus on the humanity of the other person when connecting through technology ensures we will do so with respect and dignity.


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