According to Wikipedia, “Nonverbal communication represents two-thirds of all communication.”
Left image from Wikipedia.org
Many of us are familiar with the loss of the non-verbal aspects of communications when online. Written text obviously does not carry tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. This may seem like a drastic loss of bandwidth, a move that could only lead to more shallow relationships.
I don’t however, think this is all bad. (And it is certainly something that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.)
Taken a line at a time in isolation, a sentence in the stream of consciousness that is an online chat can be relatively staid and devoid of nuances. When the line is seen in context of the whole conversation, and of the relationship established between the parties, it can be as rich as a voice/face-to-face conversation.
SMS power users also seem to experience a similar insight. Perhaps this is like losing one’s sight or hearing. As one set of sense is lost, other senses move to the fore to replace that loss. Is the online generation developing new ways to “sense” unwritten subtleties in written text?
The loss of familiar nonverbal cues can also force us to pay more attention to the conversation, and to be more present in the relationship. Nuances appear in the use of certain words, phrasing, and emoticons – in the specific context of a given relationship. This level of immediacy can foster a deep level of intimacy we may not initially think possible with just short lines of text.
The anonymous, abstracted, and sometimes asynchronous nature of online communication has other advantages too. This mode of non-face-to-face communications opens up new social opportunities for those who may otherwise be less inclined to be social; from your common or garden introvert to those with severe social or agoraphobia.
Other people are also finding it easier to engage in difficult conversations via online means than traditional ones. Think SMS firings and relationship breakups! And also the increasing popularity of online crisis support and counselling services. The phone may still be too intimate for some people, especially when discussing something deeply upsetting or personal.
The act of writing something down instead of blurting it out verbally can encourage more reflection. What better way to practice “think before you speak” than to actually see what you were going to say on the screen in front of you, before you say it? !
So the next time you feel like lamenting the limits of online communications, stop and think about the possibilities. If you feel that online communications is shallow, have you seriously tried building relationships with it? You may be pleasantly surprised.