The #1 Mistake in Modern Communication

Regret-generating ambiguous email #1056: So, I’m sorry to see that we are not on the same page when it comes to the unwritten rules of engagement with the opposite sex, and apparently not even reading the same book in terms of our relationship.  I did have fun though. :)

Regret-generating ambiguous text #343: Ur a self-centered bastard.  Fine, maybe I was PMSing, but ur still a jerk.

This article is going to be short.  It will contain one main message.  It’s an important one.  The message is this:

No emotional communication via email, text, or voicemail (aka asynchronous media).  Ever.

You should use email, text and even voicemail to transmit straight data only.  ‘What time are we meeting’, ‘what’s the address’, that kind of thing.  The occasional compliment or flirty message is okay, but even those can be subject to misunderstanding.

Now let me explain why emotional communication via text or email is such a bad idea.

1) Error rate in message generation is high.

Communication has three phases:

Message generation: Did you compose it accurately?

Message transmission: Did it fly through the air and safely get there?

Message interpretation: Did the recipient understand it the way you meant it?

When you talk to someone face-t0-face, all three things happen in real time more-or-less simultaneously.  You say “I like your shirt”; it flies through the space between the two of you at 330 meters per second; she hears it and processes it.  Generation, transmission and reception complete in 0.25s, with high fidelity.

Disrupt any of those three phases, and you’ll have miscommunication.

Now what would happen if you were eating a muffin while attempting to generate the message?  It just might come out garbled enough to sound like “You look like dirt”, and that’s what she’ll hear.

But that’s not such a big deal in person, because you’ll see her frown, you’ll finish swallowing your muffin, restate your compliment, and all’s well with a chuckle.  If you were doing the same thing over the phone, you wouldn’t have the benefit of body language feedback.

Typos are rampant over text because of clumsy fingers, predictive text software and over-abbreviation.  “I like your shirt” can become “I lick your shorts”, a somewhat different animal.

2) Message transmission is unreliable.

Let’s say you live in 15th century Morocco.  You’re upset about something and you want to convey that to your significant other.  The only way to do that is to write a note and give it to a messenger.  Except that the messenger is a notorious and disorganized drunk who’s liable to lose the message en route.  Will you still hand him the message?

Emails get lost, stuck in spam filters or accidentally deleted.  Text messages sometimes never get sent.  They can also get to their destination fine but sit ignored in the inbox while someone’s busy.  If you don’t get a response, can you tell the difference between technical failure or being ignored?  You can’t — but you’ll be stewing in your own juices in the meantime.

Email and text are like disorganized drunk messengers.  If the message has time-sensitive emotional content in it, wait till you can deliver it in person, or at least in real time over phone.

3) Message interpretation is super-unreliable.

A vast portion of our communication happens nonverbally.  Facial gesture, body language, tone of voice all encode essential information that are missing in text-based communication.  Without the nonverbal contextual cues, how would you interpret a statement like “That was just brilliant”?  Is it genuine praise or sarcasm?  You simply can’t tell.

This is fertile ground for misunderstanding and disaster. So resolve to do all emotional communication in real time.

4) Asynchronous communication catalyzes cruelty.

Ever wonder why there’s so much nastiness on the web?  People seem to have no problem eviscerating one another on a website or via email.  And yet, we don’t experience nearly as much of that in person.

Why?  Because it’s much harder to be an asshole in person, that’s why.  When confronted with a real person, your mirror neurons are active, which allow you to empathize with others and feel what they feel.  When you’re cruel to them and see them wince, you feel it too.  This is a natural internal brake to otherwise gratuitous cruelty.  Thus your neurology builds empathy, cooperation and civility into society.

Additionally, all animals have submission signals which tell an assailant to stop attacking: “You win!  I lose!  Please don’t kill me!”  You’ve probably seen dogs roll over and expose their belly, or other animals expose their necks.  Humans do it, too.  Submission signals are an essential survival feature of any species.  Otherwise they’d annihilate their own race.

This is why modern warfare has massacred so many people.  If you’re miles away from your victims and can’t see their faces or their kids’ faces, it’s pretty trivial to press a button and launch some missiles.  We just couldn’t kill 100,000 people in a flash when people engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

A nasty email or text message can be the modern communication equivalent of that missile.  You don’t see the recipient.  Your mirror neurons are not engaged and you don’t have to bear their reaction, so you can afford to be cruel.  You launch it, and boom, it can destroy without your having to be around to watch and feel.  Except that once you’ve done that, you’ve compromised your humanity and the real damage is done to you: you lose a little bit of your soul, you heartless bastard.

I may be being a little dramatic here, but you’re usually the one who regrets sending the message after the air clears and you sober up.  This is the principle of enlightened self-interest, straight out of The Tao of Dating: always choose the action that keeps you in good stead for the long term.  It ends up being better for you and for everyone around you.

So if you like pointless soul-eroding drama, go ahead and conduct your arguments over email and text.  But if you value your peace of mind, never communicate emotionally via email, text or other asynchronous media.  In the long run, the sanity you’ll save is your own.

16 Comments on “The #1 Mistake in Modern Communication”

  1. Lori

    and maybe add 2 subheading A – message sender is unreliable…ive sent wrong msg to wrong person… think “omg did u see how fat suzy looked in those pants” sent to suzy instead of susan when i clicked contacts. eeks.

  2. Luca

    Hey there Alex,
    thanks for your post; I partially agree with your words. But what about long distance relationships, when you have to use every medium (not just telephone) to communicate with your significant other?


    1. Dr Alex Benzer Post author

      Luca –
      Thanks for the excellent question. The idea is to use face-to-face or synchronous means whenever possible. Obviously, if you’re far apart, you may not have that option. Many a love affair in human history was conducted via handwritten mail, and they were pretty epic. That said, if the message is an emotional one, go for the phone or video Skype call instead of a text or email to reduce misunderstanding.

  3. green knight

    Facebook!!!! You should have mentioned facebook!!! Watching how some people live their relationships online in the daily status feed (munches popcorn) is really quite entertaining. I wonder, really, how it works for them in real life….

    1. Dr Alex Benzer Post author

      Good point — Facebook has become a form of communication in our day, like our own personal radio station. Deadly…

  4. Lauren

    Hey Alex, good (very clear) point. I do have a rule that if guys ask me out on dates via text, I can decline their offers via text. Same with email. I just think it’s okay to respond at the level of communication that the man has chosen… why would he deserve a phone call from me if he’s texting it in?


    1. Dr Alex Benzer Post author

      I agree with your policy 100%. And, as a rule, it’s the guy’s job to escalate in any case.

  5. Hanna

    Every now and again you totally and absolutely amaze me!
    Congratulations on this piece: the subject matter is important, it’s timely, it’s sober, it’s crystal clear, it’s spot on…
    You actually put in words (and most eloquently, may I add) what I think about the issue… even if I do not always put it in practice myself and have sufferred the consequences.
    I think the content of your article should be used in schools as the basis for a discussion in a Personal Education class. We adults have some more strategies for dealing with the mishaps of asynchronous communication, our adolescents on the other hand, have made it the bread and butter of their relationships and live some real dramas because of it.
    Thanks Dr Ali.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      @Hanna: whaddya mean ‘every now and then’? :) Just kidding — thanks for the kind words. And spread the message to them adolescents!

  6. Bruixitta

    Lauren: it has happened to me too and I use the same rule as you: I remain at the same level of communication as the guy who initiated it. It’s much more easy to turn down a guy this way. Now, If I’m interested, I send an encouraging reply and suggest he call me to talk about it and make the date….then it’s up to him to keep the ball rolling…
    Somehow ladies, we always end up waiting for the guys to have the initiative….

  7. Joseph

    Hey Alex… Thanks for your good work.
    I have to disagree with you on one point:
    I find that sometimes, in an emotionally charged situation, I can communicate better with the person by e mail. This allows me plenty of time to process my thoughts and edit myself so I get a clear and non charged statement, and the other person can take their time processing and hopefully act in kind. This can’t be done “live and direct”.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      @Joseph — writing stuff down is an excellent way to sort through feelings and thoughts. In fact, many great writers say you don’t really know what you think about anything until you’ve written it down. That said, once you’ve written it down, archive the email and communicate the contents in person. The written word is made for misunderstanding.

  8. anonymous

    i’ve made this mistake. i can see the damage it does. it becomes a messy cycle. how do you fix it?

  9. annonymous1

    Speaking of long distance! We met on FB after many years apart, and live in different states. What about if there is loving romantic communication, and you respond in kind, in addition to calls, of course. I.e. did you want to qualify w/no negative emotional communicaton via email? That I absolutely agree with. However, when it comes to positive communication, we do not talk often enough (for me) so the postive gaps get filled in some times w/email and text and (dare I say) messages on FB (but not on the wall). We also have had alot of fun s/exting…as our physical relationship is also long distance, and there can be an emotional component to turning each other on via text also. Bottom line, I wish it was more intimate, more calls, more often…I just told him this, and he has been more attentive since the conversation. But what gets me is when he has innocuous social chats w/other women on FB, on the same day I text him, but he doesn’t get back to me on the same day I text him! I keep having the thought, if he has time for that, he has time for me! But then I remember you masculating comment, “give him his freedom.”

  10. Candice

    Hi Alex, a guy and I were seeing each other and he moved to another country for work. We were keeping in touch often with calls and text msgs and when he went back away after a short visit we pretty much broke it off over text. I decided not to have any emotional response when he explained how he felt and simply said I understood and was vague and polite. He asked me what I was thinking and my responses were all brief and straight to the point because I was hoping he would call to continue that talk to check in if he wanted to discuss it further but he didn’t and didn’t feel like I should be the one to ask him to call. So in that case, I was proud for not allowing myself to get emotional over text, but at the same time we never got a chance to “feel out” each other about things properly because it was too serious a discussion to have via text and we never got to talk on the phone about it.