Sunday, June 24, 2012

Les communiqué…. Bridging the online divide.

In the last few weeks I have gone from ‘Conversationalist’ to ‘Controversialist’ in a matter of a few short hours. To be at the receiving end of online un-pleasantries is never appealing. However neither I have an inclination to recount nor do I intend to re-visit the episode. Those facts are inconsequential to my purpose in writing this post today.  I did have a rather good learning lesson from the entire experience. It is this facet of the episode that I want to share with you. My post today is aimed at deciphering online behaviour. 

What is online behaviour?
When individual/group interactions occur online rather than face-to-face, the computer-mediated context paves way for a discourse between individuals. The study of this discourse could be termed as Study of the Online Behaviour.

So what is the reason for this online divide? 

To begin with it is imperative to understand that to a large degree, the nonverbal channels associated with face-to-face interactions are absent in online communications, a condition which presumably places greater responsibility on verbal messages for feedback, affect, and nuances of meaning says Susan Herring in her Journal on Online Behaviour.

You will probably be a better judge* (here read as evaluator) if one is saying something and implying the opposite in the case of real world communications. 

Now consider online communications. Internet conversations are subject to wanton Assumptions, Presumptions and Hearsay. What you think, what you share, what you write and ultimately what is understood are 4 stages of online communiqué that work like the pearls in a necklace. One miss and the entire conversation can fall to pieces. An email, a tweet, a Facebook update may at many levels be misconstrued. Make no mistake this does not happen with any one person, in fact there are many perhaps who have probably dealt with the worst case scenarios. Sometimes an innocent line written, a silly confessional shared may become a cause for gross misunderstandings. It is rather unfortunate but sadly very much a reality of life. 

Sans non- verbal gestures it not only becomes difficult but impossible to gauge a person within two or three emails or messages. In fact it is disastrous to think you could know a person in three or four online exchanges. In the case of speech, the success of a verbal communication would depend on the fact that speaker has conveyed his message. That is the essence of the spoken language, which is also why ‘Pidgin’ English would work just as well as fluent Advanced English (in some cases even better!) This is not so in case of the written communication. Hence it is best to avoid any ordeal in future. 

Reading between the lines: 

One, it generally depends on the Age factor. Someone in their early teens could be easily enticed by online stalkers into sharing their personal identification, location etc. So it is essential to be cautious when you’re young and naïve.

In case of a wider generational gap you need to be calm when dealing with a situation that includes someone older. Chances are quite high that if you lose your cool the way the person on the other end, you’re never going to understand what went wrong. Instead keep the anger aside for a few minutes and contemplate on what has already ensued. 

In my personal experience since I was dealing with diametrical points of views I had a rough idea of what I was in for. It took me about 3 emails of understanding what was happening before it actually dawned on me that if I didn’t reply I’d probably prove a wrong ‘assumption’ right. So did I get mad at the person?  No! On the contrary I preferred to find a solution.

Now, unfortunately my innocent statements made were grossly overrated.  So for every statement I made I was met with a reticent reply. I took it in my stride because the minute I got down to an argumentative mode I would be endangering cherished relationships which I frankly could not afford. Which brings me to my second point: You have to decide how important your relationship is with the person. If it is merely an acquaintance you needn’t be rude but you needn’t be too mild either. You can be forthright. But if you are endangering relationships that you would otherwise want to continue, you have to ensure that no innocent person gets hit!

The curious case of ‘Hearsay’

Given the fact that I have had the opportunity of sharing a pleasant camaraderie with people from various fields, various age groups and as a communications Teacher, I do realise that it is quintessential that people talk. For better or for worse making an opinion is but inherent in humans. The question is are you going to fan the flames of hearsay or blow it out? 

Now this is if you are the victim. What if you are in doubt over the intentions of the person at the other end. How should you react?

Computer mediated conversations are prone to be misunderstood because of these communication challenges that we encounter. You read something, perceive something and finally your mental make-up makes you picture the person as very ‘good’ or extremely ‘bad’. This is nothing but a pre- mature hastily arrived at conclusion.

But I have a doubt, what should I do?

As a victim you take a call based on the level of camaraderie you share with the person, but as someone who has a doubt, how should one deal with situations like this?
Before you get there, here are a few questions you need to ask yourself:
1. Who is this person? Why has his/her behaviour upset you?
2. Have you regularly interacted with this person?
3. Are your calculations based on trivia or hearsay or are these your own conclusions? Have you carefully read the entire communication or are you reading between the lines too much?
4. Are you being too hasty in arriving at a decision? 

Keeping in cue with these questions here we presume you know the person. Instead of opting for the offensive stand, why not talk to them directly? Text is an indirect evidence of what people know feel and think. Instead of being harsh with the opposite person why not search for a milder middle ground which will give you a better understanding of the person. If you know the person well enough, call them up or have a live chat. Be frank not rude, be forthright in your questions. The person at the other end will not only go out of their way to clarify your doubt but will appreciate you for bringing it up!

Our real world correspondence cannot be incorporated in the Virtual world in toto. Small wonder then that it is the ‘Un-real and impersonal world.’ In most online arguments, there is never a consenus because a lot gets exchanged, in some cases when the fly is off the handle things take an ‘ugly’ turn. 

Having given you both sides of the discussion I come to the final lap: 

Finding Solutions:

I cannot guarantee you that you will never find anyone unpleasant, but as an optimist I prepare for the worst and hope for the Best!

Here are some Tips to allow you to enjoy a better rapport with everyone in the Virtual world.

1. Clarity : Ensure that your message to the person on the other end is so clear that it doesn’t leave any space for ambiguity. This I realised from my own personal experience. I was too carefree when I communicated. I should have stuck to good old formality. 
2. Observe Netiquette at all times: Whether you are in doubt or you are at the receiving end ensure not to lose your cool and maintain civility at your end. 
3. Do not drag too many people in a conversation. It’s always good and preferable to have one- to – one communications when there is doubt. 
 4. If you’re at the receiving end, never resort to silence. In case of face to face communications you can probably walk away but in the case of online communique its always good to straighten things out. If a clarification will help you and others stuck in the rut then I suggest you take the route, unless of course you have a better idea to pull yourself out of the mess.
5. Exercise Caution: Like I mentioned before perhaps it was my carefree attitude in real life that hit my virtual life. My statements were grossly overrated and mis-interpreted. So its always good to keep step 1 and step 5 in mind at all times. 
6. Frequency of communication: If you know the person well enough to be communicating frequently, go ahead. However, media networking sites do not take too kindly to people who communicate frequently. So, you end up being branded as a troll or a stalker despite the fact that you aren’t. 
7. Choice of words : When dealing with strangers, acquaintances or friends both the syntax and semantics play a vital role. So even if you have the best interest of the person at heart your sharp words could possibly damage them without really helping them at all.

Last but definitely not the least is the simple five letter word ‘TRUST. You need to trust yourself and the person at the other end for your camaraderie to grow pleasantly. Be bold, strike a conversation, place your trust. 

This is perhaps the essence to any fruitful relationship or friendship. You need to have your senses functioning. My conscience was crystal clear and hence I did not lose a dear one. Not all get lucky.
A policy of caution must be exercised at all times. As the Old saying goes, 



  1. Good post katie :) I could relate to your emotions while reading this post,because,I have also faced some serious issues of being misunderstood for the wrong reasons in the virtual world!Have even stayed away from twitter for a long time due to one such incident :)Later, I learned that virtual world is a dark room where people shout their thoughts! It's better to learn to walk in the dark and shout sensilbily! :D

  2. Very relevant. On the plus side, the ones who mouth off online are the ones who are least likely to voice an opinion in the real world. Maybe you should think of it as stocking up on good karma.