THE BLOG
05/18/2010 08:56 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The #1 Mistake in Modern Communication

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 misunderstood.

Now let me explain why emotional communication via text or email is a terrible 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-to-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've got 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 ur shirt" can become "I lick up 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.

Also, it's pretty easy to send a message to the wrong person. One of my readers sent "omg did u see how fat suzy looked in those pants" to Suzy instead of Susan when she clicked her contacts list, with predictably hilarious results.

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 online? 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 put up the white flag, 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 weren't able to kill 100,000 people in a flash in the days 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.

I'm being a tad dramatic here, but you're usually the one who regrets sending the message after the air clears and you sober up from your fit of passion. This is the principle of enlightened self-interest, straight out of The Tao of Dating for Women: 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 relationship-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.

For a whole book of smart pointers for smart single folks, check out The Tao of Dating for Women and The Tao of Dating for Men

Got a burning question? Write me with 'burning question' in the subject line and I'll do my best to get you a fire extinguisher

For more brain fodder, visit the Tao of Dating and Awaken Your Genius blogs

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