In Defense of Having Big/Serious/Difficult Conversations in Writing


This post grew out of a conversation I had with Chana Messinger and was also influenced by this great old Wired piece that has resurfaced on my social networks lately.

You may not think that, in this day and age, the value of digital communication still needs to be defended. Maybe it doesn’t. But the idea that “big” discussions about “serious” interpersonal matters must be reserved for in-person conversations (or, at the very least, for the telephone) is still pervasive. (Witness the constant hand-wringing in forums and magazines over whether or not it’s acceptable to break up with someone via text or email.)

I think it’s considered “common sense”–an unspoken assumption–that Important Interpersonal Conversations are best conducted in person. Wherever there is “common sense,” there are lots of fascinating insights to be gleaned about our societal values and norms. So I want to shake this idea up a bit.

Disclaimer first. The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) so that I have something to show friends and partners who want to understand why I prefer to communicate the way I do, and 2) to challenge some assumptions about text-based communication and give people something to think about. Note the conspicuous absence of “3) to convince you to stop communicating the way you like to and to do it my way instead.” Sometimes when writing about the pros or cons of something, it’s hard to avoid giving the impression that you Unilaterally Recommend the thing you’re giving pros for or that you Unilaterally Reject the thing you’re giving cons for. The only communication style I Unilaterally Recommend is the one that works for you, helps you get your needs met, and treats others with respect and dignity.

So, with all that said, let’s make a case for having difficult and/or serious conversations in writing.

My personal preference for it stems from a few things. First of all, I just really fucking love writing. It’s been my preferred method of communication and self-expression since I learned how to do it. For me it’s both a creative outlet and a practical tool. The way I analyze and process my own life is often by imagining how I would narrate it if I were writing about it.

Second, I grew up with the unfortunate combination of very curious and perceptive parents, high emotional expressiveness that’s very difficult to hide or subdue, and clinical depression. This means that my feelings were often bad (to the point of being socially and culturally unacceptable) and usually very obvious to everyone around me.

As a result, I place a very high value on what I call emotional privacy. Emotional privacy just means being able to keep your emotions private unless/until you want to reveal them. Although I haven’t studied this or talked about it with enough people to know, I would guess that emotional privacy is not something you think about a lot unless you have a mental illness, have difficulty controlling your emotional expression, or have very nosy friends, partners, or family members.

When I was depressed, and to a lesser extent now, it was impossible for me to communicate about difficult things like relationship breakups or disagreements without showing emotions, and the emotions I showed were often considered excessive and unacceptable and “wrong” by people. So I learned to value communicating in a way that allowed me to hide them until I chose to reveal them in a more appropriate way than bursting into tears–for instance, by saying, “I’m really upset that you’d end things this way,” or “It pisses me off that you’re being so critical.”

One of the most common reasons people give for why you should have these conversations in person is that this allows you to read the other person’s body language, facial expression, tone, and so forth. It’s true that these things can be very helpful in understanding someone. But it’s also true, at least to me, that people don’t always want you to be reading them in that way.

Think about it. If you ask someone if they’re upset and they say “No,” but their nonverbal cues suggest otherwise, that probably means that they’re indeed upset but don’t want to tell you that right now. (I think it’s totally fine to choose not to tell someone that you’re upset at them, with caveats.) Why should you have access to information about someone’s emotional state that they don’t want you to have? Why should your desire to know how they really feel trump their desire to choose whether and when to share their emotional state with you?

When I’m discussing something difficult with someone, I want emotional privacy. I want to be able to choose when and how to tell them what I’m feeling. Because I, like many people, do not have perfect control over my emotional expression, this makes text-based communication preferable.

But it’s not just about me. I want to extend this right to the person I’m communicating with, too. While I always care about and want to know how people are feeling, especially when we’re talking about something serious, I want them to tell me how they’re feeling when they’re ready to.

For me, this is especially key when it comes to breakups. The common wisdom is that it shows “respect” to someone to drag them out to a restaurant or some other public place or even your home, break up with them, force them to process those emotions right there in front of you, possibly cry in public, and then go home alone. I find this absolutely baffling. I think that the kindest thing you can do when breaking up with someone is to give them privacy and to let them choose whether or not to respond to your message or see you again or share their reaction to the breakup with you.

Another advantage of text-based communication is that it facilitates the act of thinking before speaking (or writing, as the case may be). Unfortunately, American culture still largely considers silence and pauses during conversation to be “awkward,” so people feel the pressure to fill them up. People may also speak impulsively. With text, email, and instant message, there are different norms about how quickly one needs to respond, and you also have the benefit of seeing your words take shape as you type them–before you send them off into the world. With face-to-face conversation, we typically don’t get to rehearse.

I want the freedom to write and revise and rewrite what I want to say before the other person sees it, because this helps me be the best communicator I can possibly be. I want the person I’m talking to to have this freedom too.

Text-based conversations can also be paused in ways that in-person conversations cannot. “I’m not thinking clearly right now and need to take a break. I’ll text you when I’m ready to talk again.” “Hold on, I need to step away and think about this for a while.” These are things that are certainly possible to do in person, but harder, especially because unless the two of you live together, you probably had to go somewhere to talk to each other.

Further, text-based conversations have the amazing feature of (usually) being saved in writing and accessible later. No more arguing about who said what or started what or brought up what. No more mentally kicking yourself because you spaced out and didn’t really hear what the person was saying but feel bad about asking now (although, if you’re in this situation, you should definitely still ask). No more awkwardly asking for a repeat if you’re hard of hearing or still learning the language or the other person has an accent. And if–hopefully you never have to deal with this–the person harasses, abuses, or threatens you, you have a record of that.

Finally, text-based conversation can be a lot easier for people who are dealing with shyness, introversion, or social anxiety (or other mental illnesses). Some people use this fact as an excuse to dismiss text-based communication as being for “cowardly” people who just want to “hide behind the computer screen” and blahblah, but I hope I don’t need to explain why I find this completely asinine. People have varying levels of comfort with things. In general, increasing your level of comfort with something as ubiquitous and necessary as in-person communication is great, but until you find a way to do that, you still need a way to communicate effectively.

Remember, though, that you need not have any clinical condition to find it easier and more comfortable to communicate in writing. The fact that you simply prefer it is legitimate in and of itself. You do not need an “excuse.”

There are, of course, challenges and pitfalls with text-based communication. They can be corrected for to varying degrees.

One such challenge is the occasional difficulty of understanding what exactly someone means by something they wrote. While there is (contrary to common belief) tone on the internet, it is of a very different nature than verbal tone. For instance:

  • “I can’t believe you did that.”
  • “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT”
  • “I can’t believe you did that. :(“
  • “i cant believe u did that”
  • “I can’t believe you did that :P”
  • “I can’t believe you did that! :D”

All of these things convey different things, and some have more meaning in them than others. When communicating in text, capitalization and emoticons can be extremely important, even if you’re used to thinking of those things as rude or childish somehow. A well-placed emoticon can change everything:

  • “How are you?” “Fine.”
  • “How are you?” “Fine :)”
  • “How are you? “Fine :-/”

(Some of my greatest difficulties in text-based communication have been with people who do not use emoticons.)

Beyond such relatively easy fixes, however, it’s important to master simple phrases like these:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?”
  • “I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?”
  • “What does it mean when you [use that emoticon/phrase/punctuation/etc.]?”

If any of this sounds really standard and normal, that’s probably because asking for clarification and checking in to make sure you understood is a very important communication skill that will come in handy for in-person conversation, too!

In fact, I’m going to posit that, while the challenges of understanding each other in text-based communication are slightly different than those in verbal communication, they’re not significantly greater, if at all. It’s obviously false that verbal communication never creates misunderstandings. In fact, because verbal communication tends to fly by much quicker and does not naturally include lulls that facilitate reflection (as text-based communication does), it’s probably less likely that the participants will even realize that a miscommunication has occurred. With text, you’ll be reading it, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wait, what does this actually mean?” And then you can ask!

Another disadvantage is that it’s impossible to physically comfort someone during a difficult conversation if you’re doing it in writing. Obviously. While there isn’t really a good way around this, online expressions like *hug* help. So does simply saying, “I wish I could hold you right now” or something like that. But obviously, it’s not the same.

In general, good text-based communication, just like good verbal communication, requires mastering a number of different speaking/writing/listening/empathizing skills. I think people sometimes assume that communication is not a “skill” because humans are “wired” to communicate. Yes and no. I’m not sure that humans are “wired” to communicate things as complex as we regularly try to do now, and even if we were, it’s still the case that different individuals learn different styles of speaking and writing, and it’s important to realize that what may read to you as _____ may read to someone else as totally not _____.

I have conducted the majority of my “serious” conversations via writing since I was 14. My emails, IM logs, Facebook messages, and texts chronicle flirtations and new relationships and breakups and makeups and first “I love you”‘s and negotiations and arguments and sexual boundary settings and everything else that is part of the process of forming, defining, maintaining, and (sometimes) ending friendships and relationships of all kinds. I can honestly say that many of these friendships and relationships could not have happened in any other way. There is a certain magic to falling in love with someone through their words.

Maybe you’re of a different generation and this all seems kind of sad and pathetic to you. That’s okay. But to me, it’s part of what makes my life so rich and colorful. Maybe I’ll grow to prefer in-person communication as my social networks solidify and I stop moving around. But for now, writing will be the way I do it.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve found that writing the hard stuff has actually helped me greatly with in-person and phone communication. As little as five years ago, I was absolutely terrified of the phone–picking up was a little easier than making a call, but in general you couldn’t have paid me enough to touch the thing unless it was for things like ordering a pizza. Having time to sit down, write and edit a message was infinitely better since I didn’t have to think on my feet. I still prefer it, but the gap has closed, as after years of writing almost all my messages, my way of writing worked its way into my head, such that I write like I talk and I talk like I write for the most part. So now even in person or on the phone, I’m able to compose and edit myself quickly while talking.

  2. smrnda says

    You make a great point about writing helping the other person have emotional privacy. I have on a few occasions turned someone down who had expressed romantic or sexual interest in me, and I felt that it was much easier to do this in writing since I felt I would be able to say what I needed to and then explain a few things (mostly about me being asexual and therefore not able to handle relationships unless sex wasn’t an expectation) because I felt it’d be easier for the other person to take it privately, in their own time, and it led to being able to proceed as friends after that without much awkwardness. In person? Far more painful and I also had the problem that I didn’t want to tell the person that at my place, their place, or a public place.

    I also sometimes feel that spoken and written languages are almost 2 different languages. There are some ways that I feel writing can be more expressive.

  3. says

    A useful and thoughtful article.
    I indeed am of a different generation and come from a British/European perspective where language is concerned. I have had to come to terms with a post-90s world where e-mails (and latterly tweets) have become so prevalent. Emoticons have always seemed to me at best a blunt instrument of communicating nuances of feeling, and I know only too well how the written word can be misinterpreted in personal mail, particularly when composed in haste. As for acronyms (LOL, ROFL etc) and txt spk – don’t get me started.

    But time moves on and as the distance between my age and that of my undergraduate students grows ever greater, I suppose it is incumbent upon me to move with the times and get to grips with this stuff. In one way it’s a new linguistic creativity. But it sometimes feels like hacking one’s way through an impenetrable linguistic jungle.

  4. michael scottmonje jr says

    Fantastic article. Often, I get unvoiced when I’m trying to talk through these difficult issues, so I tend to prefer text as well (I’m autistic). Not a lot of non-autistic people will treat such a communication as seriously as a direct in-person discussion, so I am very glad to see people outside our immediate community defending text as equally valid, equally social, and equally meaningful. Thank you.

  5. says

    I finally got a chance to read this thoroughly, and it made me realize a few things. I seem to be in a transitional generation of folks who were born prior to a pre-digital age, but rapidly found ourselves growing up alongside the technology that facilitates this kind of communication. While some in my bracket of contemporaries have more or less rejected parts or almost the whole of this new way of communicating, a few of us have wholly embraced it … and to some extent, made to feel defensive about it as somehow being “age inappropriate”.

    Which is ridiculous. When I think back to my own childhood in a household with a steadily growing language barrier between my parents and myself, Catholic schooling where voice and behavior were stringently regulated and then moving to a public school where the other children had such different upbringings, it felt natural for my words to be “performance” as opposed to real communication. I think I’ve learned since on being a better verbal communicator, but I’ve often been labeled as being “professorial” when it comes to that even to this day. The worst is when they take my emotions and use it as a deflection of my ideas even if my word choices don’t reflect the heat in my tone. I understand the impulse, but I find it discouraging as I can’t help sometimes that I am an animated and emotional speaker.

    Writing and drawing is an outlet for me to communicate with passionate performance AND distinct ideas, and generally not have one confused for the other (if I’m doing it right). I love how technology has facilitated that to an extent where shorthand Internet slang and memetic imagery can be as, if not moreso, nuanced than physical body cues, to which I find people tend to lend too much credence. And if my married, suburbanite friends living the socially acceptable and classically interpreted American Dream (which, I don’t judge … it’s just their choice) don’t like it, they can text me.

  6. R Hayes says

    Communication using the written word? With non-standard spelling and fluidity of grammar?

    How 18th century! Have you people no pride, no urge to stay current?

    And blogs! As pernicious, chatty, and in-joke ridden as Addison or Steele at their worst!

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