The Power of Words: Guidelines For Communication In A Digital Age

The rise of technology across my lifetime has shifted how we interact in profound ways.

Honest communication has somehow simultaneously become the rarest and most commonplace form of human interaction. 

The rise of technology across my lifetime has shifted how we interact in profound ways. We suddenly have 24-hour access to pretty much anyone. We can interact with people we've never met in real life (IRL) and we are "talking" about things with casual acquaintances that just 20 years ago we wouldn't have. 

In an era before the internet and cellphones, saying hard, vulnerable, true things meant looking somebody in the eye and with that lump in your throat conjuring all of the courage you had to speak your truth. You could not "block" their response. You could not close your computer. You could not walk away for a few hours while you formulated the perfect response. 

There was time for follow-up. They could see your body language and expression. They could hear the tone in your voice. It was an art and it was raw. 

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Because of the nuance and emotion involved in this process, I think a lot of things went unsaid. We didn't talk about religion or politics or anything else deeply personal with people we weren't super close to because it wasn't worth the risk of potential rejection. We also weren't able to communicate across the same expanse of time or space as we are now. 

If you came to my house for dinner before the internet, we maybe had a couple of hours to interact, most of which probably would have been directly related to the meal we were eating, and then I might not see you again to have a vulnerable discussion for quite some time. 

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Now, if I want to tell you something, I can do it any time of the day from anywhere through about 25 different apps. These additional opportunities to interact have allowed us to talk about things with people and share things about ourselves that we never would have before. These days anyone with an internet connection has a platform and that has deeply shifted relationships. Or, at least it has for me. Once you see who somebody is on the internet it is impossible to unsee it. 

We are in uncharted territory when it comes to communication, and I think we should hit pause every now and again to assess how we might be coming across.

Here are a few of the guidelines I try to use in my online communication:

1. Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in-person.

If you are saying something online that you would not say in-person because it is too judgmental, too harsh, too mean, too outrageous, too whatever ... then don't say it online. Even though there is an implied distance and an odd sense of courage when you are behind a computer screen, remember that these are still human interactions. There is another human reading what you are putting out into the world. 

2. Don't say anything online that should be said in-person.

There are some things that are better said in real life. I'm looking at you very public and very awkward conflicts between people who know each other IRL (some of which I've totally been guilty of engaging in). It's OK to feel big feelings. It's totally OK to be really angry at somebody. It is not OK to belittle another person online or engage in a public conflict just because you are upset. Go talk to them — or never talk to them again — just don't make it everyone else's business. I think apologies also often fall into this category. A sincere apology should be said in-person when possible. 

3. Don't say anything when your emotions are running too wild.

This is another one I'm guilty of. There are plenty of trolls out there and plenty of things to get upset about online. If something gets you super fired up, you don't have to respond immediately. Walk away for a while. When you come back you will be able to respond a lot more tactfully and be way more effective at getting your point across. I love this section from this article about clear communication in the midst of big emotion.

"... I needed to be more discerning between critical thoughts with some constructive intention and critical thoughts that came from my ego. The critical thoughts with a constructive intention served a valid purpose, whether it was to help me maintain my boundaries, communicate my needs, or honor my values. The critical thoughts that came from my ego usually had to do with fear, wanting to make someone else wrong to feel superior, or even projecting onto someone else the character traits I wished I didn't have. The first type of critical thought is crucial since it's a prerequisite to taking care of ourselves. And sometimes, it may also pertain to taking care of people we love, by speaking up when we see someone mistreating them. So how do we recognize and avoid passive-aggressive behavior? ... Accept that you have the right to be angry ... foster self-awareness about what you need or want to express ... and have the courage to be clear ..."

4. Be willing to apologize.

We all make mistakes. We all say things we shouldn't have. We all miscommunicate. Just own it and learn from it. Be big enough to say you are sorry and that you will do better. See point above about apologies.  

5. When it comes to content you disagree with, sit with the discomfort for a while before you respond.

This is sort of related to the point about checking your emotions. But often when I come across something online that I disagree with, my first instinct is to start typing all the reasons it is wrong. I've found it far more valuable to sit with my discomfort instead of immediately responding sometimes. Why does this thing make me angry? Why do I disagree with it? What values or knowledge of mine does it contradict? Could I be wrong? Could this person have knowledge or experience that I don't? Could they be speaking from a place of ignorance rather than ill-intent? Could I be reading into it? What is the benefit of me engaging with the post? If the answer is only that I will prove them wrong and gain a sense of self-righteousness, then I have no business engaging. 

P.S. I fail at following my own guidelines more often than I'd like to admit, but I promise I'm trying. 

This story originally appeared on Mandy Cowley's blog. Cowley is a soulful creative deeply committed to leaving the world at least a little better than she found it. She has been married for 10 years and is a mom to a 6-year-old bundle of energy named Joseph. Mandy enjoys writing about raising a differently abled child, adoption, and making the most out of our very busy lives. When she isn't writing or painting, she can usually be found hunting her next cup of coffee or baking. You can find more of her work at www.mandycowley.com and follow her on Facebook

Cover image via Unsplash

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