Social networks have revolutionized our way of communicating. A few years ago, it was unthinkable for us to talk to our friends in almost real-time when we were not with them. Now we just need an internet connection and a social network username.
What has not evolved is our way of getting along with others and our use of language as the central vehicle for the establishing relationships. And of course, when communication is not face to face, misunderstandings arise, which most of the time says more about the person who is interpreting the message than the person who is sending it.
The elephant in the room
The cell phone vibrates. It is a notification from one of your social networks. Your look at the screen and read, “Hey! How’s it going?”
It just so happens that you had a bad day or that the person writing you is the boss’s yes-man and you think they need another favor. Or maybe you are in a really good mood or it is your best friend that you have been wanting to talk to so badly. But the person who sent the message cannot know all of this. They cannot know because this is not face to face communication. As such, they do not have access to other keys to language that are as important as words:
- Proxemics: the location and spatial behavior where the conversation takes place. It is not the same thing to greet someone on the street who is clearly in a hurry and goes by apologizing for being in a rush as someone on a social network. When we are connected to our social networks, we may be busy working on the computer. We look at messages to see if they are important but we do not have any reason to respond. And here is where the receiver can jump to countless conclusions, among which stand out the dramatic ones: “They don’t like me because they aren’t answering,” “I upset them,” or “What could I have done?”
- Vocal or extralinguistic behavior: this refers to our own vocalization of the language, to its tone and form, but not to its content. As much as we use it, neither irony, sarcasm, or even jokes are detected well in our communication through social networks. Tone is a very important part of language for understanding the meaning of the message, and in a world of technology, this can only be captured in voice messages.
- Verbal or linguistic behavior: yes, this refers to the actual language that we use to write the message. But here, too, a role is played by the distance from the receiver. If the boy you like says hi to you face-to-face, it may make you nervous and cause you to respond as if you had some communication disorder: stutter, aphasia, anomia…That’s not the same as if he says hi to you when you’re in your house surrounded by friends, and have time to think and consult about what to respond so as “not to seem anxious or stupid” or “so that it is something original.”
All of this is something that most of us are aware of. We know that everything matters in communication, from our tone to the distance, but on social networks, we do not take this into consideration. It turns into an elephant in the room; we all see it, but each of us explains its presence in a different way, understanding messages the way that best suits us.
The Hanlon Principle
Robert J. Hanlon, already gave us a solution to this problem of communication on social networks in 1980, before they even existed, in his famous book on Murphy’s Laws. In this, Hanlon set forth what is know as the Hanlon principle or Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Following Hanlon’s principle involves reducing the degree of intentionality that we attribute to most of the communication that we read on social networks. Many of the mistakes that we detect and interpret as slights correspond more to circumstance or oversight than anything else. The fact of the matter is that the world is more likely to forget about us than to conspire against us.
So as we pointed out in a previous section, written communication lacks many of the information elements that we do have in direct communication. For this reason, we have to be more cautious about the interpretation we give to the written word. In this way, we will avoid anger and misunderstandings that really do not make sense.