Expert Tips - Facebook Isn’t Face to Face

Conversation in the digital age

by Linda L. Locher, counselor in Penn College’s Counseling Services Office

Published March 4, 2019

Several years ago, I asked a client if she’d had a conversation with her boyfriend about her unhappiness. She had been feeling hurt and angry that he often failed to show up at the time he promised. With considerable animation, she proudly said that yes, she had. As her counselor, I congratulated her on her efforts to voice her feelings and assert her expectations, a goal she had identified in therapy. I then asked what his response had been. She answered that she did not know because he had yet to text her back. That is when I realized that her definition of a conversation was very different from mine. This was my introduction to the new culture of digital conversation.

As a psychologist working with college students and teaching basic communication skills, I have been fascinated with digital conversation, how it may advance our understanding of each other, and how it may create unexpected obstacles and misunderstandings.

Whatever the medium we use – pen and paper, telephone, text, or in-person conversation – there is not one method that is inherently good or bad. However, it is important to realize how digital conversation may challenge us.

Consider the following when choosing both what to say to someone and how to “say” it.

Reflex or Reflection

Digital conversation often occurs at lightning speed. “I sent her eight texts, and I’ve heard nothing back for an hour,” remarked one annoyed student. The cultural expectation to check your screen upon receiving a message (often interrupting another task or conversation) and to respond immediately is considerable. This immediacy in conversation is refreshing, as you are not left to wonder what the other person is thinking. Receiving an answer right away lowers uncertainty, and lowering uncertainty lowers anxiety. Avoidance of anxiety is one of the driving forces behind the addictive quality of digital communication.

However, the immediate response, or the reflex reaction, also tends to eliminate reflection. Taking time to reflect on what you’ve heard or read gives you time to sort out your feelings. Integrating your thoughts and feelings is essential for meaningful conversation.

Short is not always sweet

Digital conversation lacks what Sherry Turkle calls the “humanizing” element of face-to-face communication. In her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age,” Turkle says that digital conversations allow things to be said that we would never have the nerve to say in person.

This frankness has real value, as when a bystander speaks up to challenge abuse. However, communication without personal presence or first-hand ownership of the message fosters cyberbullying at worst, and at best fails to nurture empathy. Our lives need more empathy.

Do you like me?

Digital communication and our devices provide that “ping” that tells us a message is waiting for us. Perhaps more importantly, that ping tells us that someone is thinking about us, someone cares.

Margaret Wehrenberg and Steven Prinz, authors of “The Anxious Brain,” have noted that each ping, chirp or beep gives us a jolt of adrenaline. This is so rewarding that it fosters an addiction to our devices. Separation from our devices can evoke withdrawal-like symptoms.

A quiet phone becomes the equivalent of being unloved. Ivan Pavlov and his dog that salivated at the sound of a bell have nothing on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat when it comes to influencing our behavior. Self-esteem is too important to be measured by the number of “likes” or pings we receive. Esteem is stronger when the message is experienced seeing eye to eye and touching hand to hand.

Say What??

Meaningful conversations typically convey both information and emotion. Emotions can be challenging to understand, and we often need to combine words, tone of voice, nonverbal behavior and eye contact to appreciate accurately how another person is feeling.

The one-dimensionality of digital conversation handicaps our understanding of emotions. The addition of emojis, emoticons and even an Instagram or Facebook photo may add little clarity. If the words and icons seem contradictory, the reader may wonder whether to laugh, be insulted, feel included or excluded, or what?

Digital communication does not lend itself to conveying subtle or complex emotions, the stuff of real conversation.

Moreover, digital communication does little to help individuals gain comfort with real-time emotions exchanged in face-to-face conversation. Digital communication avoids the messiness and anxiety of dealing with emotions. Turkle observes that our increased reliance on digital communication reflects a “flight from conversation – at least conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”

What you have to say is important. How you choose to say it and what medium you use may create either great conversation or great confusion.