It’s a tricky world we live in. We are simultaneously more connected than ever to people around the world – some who we know and love and some who we will never know (and definitely don’t love) – and outrageously disconnected from people who live right next door to us. On the one hand I feel incredibly lucky to live in this time. I keep in touch with friends that live states and oceans away for free and instantaneously! No longer is it necessary to purchase special air-mail paper to send letters to my loved ones overseas and wait for weeks to hear back from them. And yet there are days that I find myself completely overwhelmed by expectations of connectivity. I’m not very good at it, to be frank. I don’t always return text messages quickly, I’m hardly present on social media at all, I don’t know what is happening in my friends’ online lives, and sometimes that leaves me out of the loop (I miss anniversaries, birthdays, things other people are quick to acknowledge and celebrate via emojis).
What I have learned about myself, though, is that the internet is not a good place for me. Even more so, electronic communication is not necessarily a good place for me. I do it, because I have to…but there are certainly times that I look back and realize it’s probably not the best choice for connectivity. This point was exemplified recently in a text exchange.
The person on the other side of the exchange was an acquaintance. Our paths cross with some frequency and our lives intersect for specific reasons, but we don’t know each other at all outside of these specific reasons and intersections. She contacted me via text because something had happened that involved one of my family members and she wanted me to know about it (or, as it turned out, take responsibility for it). I responded, in a way that I thought was both respectful of her and protective of me and my family. I tried to be thoughtful and intentional in my response, I tried to portray both my concern for the situation and how it had impacted her and her family, and also what I had learned about the other side of the story in conversations with my family member. I tried to both take responsibility and engage in the conversation without presuming the issue was one sided. I agonized over how to address the issue in my family, and how to respond to her compassionately. I thought I had done the right thing.
The message I received from her in response was angry. Hateful. Blaming. Shaming and belittling. I was floored. The shame I experienced was rapid and cut deep. “I am a failure. I am not good enough. I never will be. My best intentions fall short every time.”
Brene Brown talks about how the feeling of shame: “I’m not good enough…” can sometimes show up as “Who do you think you are?” Sometimes that “who do you think you are?” is pointing inward – as in “Who do I think I am to do this/try this/live this way? I am not enough, I am not enough and I never will be.” Other times we can externalize and shift the blame to others – a true “who do you think you are to do that/say that/live that way? What gives you the nerve? The right?”
I am an internalizer through and through (as tends to be more common in women). I am quick to assign blame to myself, to feel shame and guilt, to experience self-doubt and reproach. It is part of my ongoing self-work, to be more thoughtful about what I am actually responsible for and how to take the necessary action to correct, and what I am not responsible for… and to then set myself free from shame and guilt. When I received the angry text message from this acquaintance, I went immediately into shame and guilt and took on all responsibility, both for what went wrong, and then additionally for how I must have failed in communicating about what went wrong. It’s been a few weeks since it happened and honestly I still feel a knot in my stomach, although I have also become more reflective. I am no longer stuck in shame and failure, and have been able to shift my thinking toward what could have gone differently – what part was I responsible for and where did I have the power to do somethign differently. Of course the answer is obvious. I could have talked instead of typing.
I knew from that first message I received from this acquaintance that what I needed to do was pick up the phone and call. Or set up a time to meet and speak face to face. I knew it was not a conversation to have over text message, it was an issue for personal connection. But I was tired, stretched thin and (frankly) didn’t want to have to talk to this person. In the moment, a text conversation seemed reasonable. Looking back, it was clearly the wrong decision. In all likelihood, the situation would have been resolved more quickly and with less frustration had we just spoken in the first place. I did, for the record, offer to talk after receiving the text-attack. My offer was declined – twice.
We all know what is wrong with e-communications. Depending on which resource you look to, communication is only 7-35% verbal. The rest is contextual – body language, tone of voice, eye contact, etc. Words can come across entirely wrong when printed in black and white – too formal, too aggressive, too flippant – the ways to misinterpret the written word are endless. When we are face to face with a person (or even over the phone), there is an immediate feedback loop that tells us if our message has not been received in the way it was intended, and if that is the case we have the opportunity to connect and correct immediately. The same simply cannot happen by email or text. Misinterpreted messages get stuck in people’s minds for much longer than the quick moment of misunderstanding that happens in person. Then those misinterpreted messages turn into stories that shape a person’s perception over time. Stories are harder to alter than misunderstandings. Instead of fixing a misunderstanding in the here and now, you are left trying to re-write a story that has taken root and begun to shape other perceptions as well.
What is the answer, then? Never to text or email again? Of course not. Our world depends on electronic communication, there’s no escaping that. If messages are complicated, though – if you find yourself struggling over how to say something, I would encourage you to take it off line. If you engage in a written conversation that feels emotionally charged, I would encourage you to take it off line. If you sense your message is being taken the wrong way or if you have a sharp, emotional reaction to the other person’s message, I encourage you to take it off line. If, like me, you think to yourself “I know I should just talk to this person, but I’m too tired and just want to get this over with,” then remember my story…a story that surely could have ended in one conversation instead of resulting in this painful exchange and self-reflective blog post. #betternexttime?
Maybe next month, let’s talk about the vulnerability and courage that these hard conversations require…and the benefits that can come from them.