After having had it happen to me a couple of times over the years since I’ve been interacting with various people online, I wanted to quickly share what I believe to be one of the most (if not the most) important things there is to know about communicating with another person via writing.
Whether it’s through email, social media, or even in an old-fashioned paper-and-ink letter, I believe the most important thing to remember is this:
When we communicate via keyboard, all basic (and crucial!) nonverbal cues are lost completely.
As a result…
It is incredibly easy to misinterpret or be misinterpreted when it comes to intention, attitude or demeanor.
We must make every effort to avoid mirror-reading (the projecting of one’s own disposition or attitude onto the author) at all costs and instead give someone the benefit of the doubt until there is overwhelming reason not to.
Being completely misunderstood can be a terrible feeling (it’s near the top of my list, personally). When someone takes from your words something you never meant it can be frustrating, embarrassing, painful or a mixture of all three.
It doesn’t even need to be anything major. In fact, here’s an example from my own life which, in the big scheme of things is quite trivial, but which hurt nonetheless.
Recently I was talking to a gal who I’d been matched with via an online dating site (yeah…I’ll admit to trying the whole online dating thing–I’m not ashamed! And most of you who are single and reading this have as well; don’t lie! 😉 ). She had messaged me and asked me to tell her about myself, so I was writing back about what I do and other random things about me. One of the things I said was that being an artist/minister/martial artist, I’m pretty much broke. Then I jokingly added: “I’m dirt poor, so anyone looking for a sugar daddy will be sorely disappointed.”
Of course, people that know me would probably pick up on the fact that I was simply being self-deprecating about my current as a starving artist/itinerant Bible teacher. I didn’t think anything of it. It was an offhand comment that I had thrown in between other random details about my life in an almost stream-of-consciousness response I wrote while being half-distracted by the episode of Conan I was watching at the time.
But, boy, did it not get received in that way!
You see, I had forgotten that in the previous short message I had sent in response to her initial email, I had already mentioned being a starving artist. Not only was I was watching TV when I wrote back this second time, but it had also been over a week since that first message. I didn’t remember what all I had mentioned to her already…but she sure hadn’t.
She wrote back telling me how insulted and degraded she felt after reading it. She said wasn’t looking for any “sugar daddy” and the fact that I had implied it (twice now!) showed that I had a real hang up with money and that I didn’t know her and should never have made such a judgment about her.
It completely caught me off guard. I wrote back quickly letting her know that I was terribly sorry and I explained that part of how I deal with my current financial status is by laughing about it and not taking it too seriously. I told her that I feel it’s good to be honest from the get go about where I am in life financially (especially when talking to someone who might be interested), and that I wasn’t even remotely intending to imply anything at all about her. It was just a light-hearted comment that was written in a joking tone…in my mind.
But of course, rereading it, and realizing that she doesn’t know me at all and has zero ability to discern my tone of voice via a written message, I could totally see how it might come across that way–especially given how money-driven our society is in general!
It was embarrassing.
And honestly, it hurt.
Not because I was smitten with this girl and had just blown my chances with her (I wasn’t; I didn’t know anything about her and was just responding to a question in an offhand manner).
It hurt because it had given someone an impression of me that was so far from who I really am and it reflected terribly on me as a Christian…particularly as a minister.
I don’t know if I’ll ever hear back from this woman. I don’t know if she accepted my apologies and believed I was being sincere or not. Honestly, I don’t think we’d have been a good match, so I’m not really concerned about the lost romance potential. But I do know that because I wasn’t careful in what I wrote, and because she read into my words something that I never at all intended, I made a terrible impression with another person, which was totally unnecessary and easily avoidable.
So let’s do our best to make sure we are not misunderstanding someone else whenever we read something they write that offends or troubles us.
When it doubt, rather than getting offended, being passive-aggressive or firing off a snarky response…
let’s just ask the person to clarify what they meant.
And until they do…
let’s choose to believe the best about them and what they might have meant.
As followers of Jesus, this is our duty to everyone in this world. In fact, in the famous New Testament passage (which actually has nothing to do with wedding vows, despite being read at almost every wedding!), we find the following admonition regarding how Christians are to treat people in general:
“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Does this describe how we interact with others when we communicate to them via written word?
Does it describe our outlook toward those things we read that bother us?
So let us not only be careful in how we communicate to others with our writings, but let’s also avoid jumping to conclusions as much as possible.
Because, as we all know, jumping to conclusions “is horrible, this idea.”
Blessings from the Dojo,