There is a scene from the romantic comedy classic, You’ve Got Mail, when Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is trying to soothe hurt feelings with Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and finds himself with writer’s block. At this point, he does what seems rational and starts quoting lines from The Godfather about the schism between business and personal relationships.
“It’s not personal, it’s business,” he writes.
On the receiving end, Kathleen screws up her nose wondering what the heck Joe is talking about and how he means it. Things between them get more complicated from there.
The lack of nonverbal assets is a well known problem with e-mailing and texting. The words are there, they convey their dictionary (denotative) meanings, but that’s pretty much all.
And it’s not enough. Not by the longest shot.
It’s especially not enough when we use e-mails as a default means of winning arguments or defending ourselves through reasoning when everyone involved is upset because of emotional hurt.
That’s where the need for nonverbals comes in, loud and clear.
A soft voice. A kind look. A reassuring touch.
Words aren’t enough
With e-mails and texting, you get only words when feelings and eye contact are needed.
Nonverbal communication is generally understood as the process of sending and receiving wordless messages. Smiley faces and other “emoticons” aside, you cannot do that either in e-mails or in texting.
The language of nonverbal communication can be body language, spatial distance, clothing, hairstyles, symbols, music, and art. Within speech itself, there are also nonverbal elements such as voice intonation, rhythm, pitch, and stress. Even within written text there are a couple nonverbal elements, but one is handwriting style which – of course – you can’t have with e-mails unless you scan in a handwritten letter. The other is the emoticon which is better than nothing, but well … does that really do the job?
We’ve all been involved in those oops-moments when we have spoken before thinking, causing blunt-force trauma to our relationship with the target of our misstatement. And most of us have tried to soothe the hurt feelings by way of an e-mail or text message. Maybe we’ve even tried to explain or justify our statement in what we thought was a rationally written message.
And, finally, most of us have seen how ineffective that venue is for healing injured feelings.
One reason is that when we compose a written message — as I am doing now — we are engaging in exclusive, one-way communication. We may think we are talking with another person, but essentially we are having a converation with ourselves. Why? Because we’re the only one listening (reading) as we write. The other individual has no chance to hear us as we compose our message, nor to interrupt us and offer a course correction.
Not so interactive
So this vaunted form of “interactive” communication — this great online venue of chatting — is only interactive after we hit the send button. And by then, again as most of us know, it can be too late. Have you ever wanted to reach out and grab a message back that you just sent on its merry way? If so, you’re only one of tens of millions who have experienced that moment.
The moral? If the relationship you have just dented is that important to you, get up, go over to that person’s office or home, and tell them face-to-face you are sorry things got screwed up.