Do You Understand Me? On the Dangers of the IM

In the course of conversation, serious or casual, we often ask, “Do you understand?” The conventional wisdom tells us that if the question is followed by a “yes” answer, then real understanding exists.

I say, not so fast. Let me give you an example.

I remember treating  a family that included a son and a daughter. I don’t recall the precise ages of the children, but the boy was probably between 10 and 12, his sister much younger. I’d been seeing the family for some time when the parents came to their appointment in a state of more than usual alarm. The father first wanted to talk with me alone. He said that his son had threatened to “rape his sister.” I asked for the details, including whether the father had questioned his son as to his understanding of the word “rape.” “Yeah, I asked him whether he understood what that meant,” the father told me, “and he said that he did.” I then spoke with the son alone. This gentle but troubled and ashamed boy recounted the incident. Then I asked him to tell me, in his own words, what rape meant. And what came out was some version of “beating-up” his sister because she had been teasing him. Where had he heard the word “rape?” “On TV.”

Not that wanting to beat-up his little sister was a thing to be encouraged, but still, it wasn’t rape that he wanted to do, and everyone was pretty relieved once I explained the details to the parents. The point of this is that it isn’t as easy as we think to achieve “understanding” of what we are saying; indeed, if you think it is easy, you are probably creating a certain number of misunderstandings.

Consider how many serious attempts at communication are done in the form of email. Too many people routinely hit the “send” button before they have carefully reflected on how their message will be understood, and how they will feel about having sent that message in an hour or a day or a week.

What is the best way to be understood on any subject, and especially on a subject of importance? Be in the same room as the person with whom you would like to communicate, having first gathered your thoughts; and with the time to explain them and the opportunity to see if the other person can accurately paraphrase what you’ve said back to you. In this situation you will have several sources of information that can be helpful in making yourself understood, and are also available to inform you if your message has been received in the way that you were hoping. You will have words, of course, but also body-language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, inflections, the volume (loudness) of your speech, the speed with which you utter the words–all of these things, which you can vary as needed.

If you choose not to use face-to-face communication or simply can’t, due to circumstances of time or distance, perhaps a phone call will do. But understand that what you and your partner in conversation might be able to see has now been lost to you. Without the eye contact, body-language, and facial expressions to help you interpret the words you are hearing, the chance of misunderstanding grows.

Worst of all is the written word. True, if you have time and are a thoughtful person who is good with language, you might have added time to craft your written message that isn’t available when simply speaking in conversation. But, once the back-and-forth of an instant-message or text-message communication occurs, one usually loses the time for careful consideration that one had in the days of letter-writing. And you have lost not only the possible message-clarifying assistance of what you can see of the other person’s expressions and posture, but also all the things that a telephone still conveys in sound: inflection, emphasis, strain or ease, intensity, urgency, and so forth. Now your chance of being misunderstood has increased even more.

A very clever old book, How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenburg with Marcia Jacobs, puts it very well in Exercise #4 from a section called “Seventeen Masochistic Exercises for the Beginner:” “Write a letter to somebody, mail it, then figure out which part could be most easily misunderstood.” Greenberg wrote the book well before the days of IMs and text-messages, so one can only imagine what an update might look like given the destructive possibilities inherent in those speedy missives.

Sometimes the oldest advice is best: when you want to talk about something important or emotionally charged, take a deep breath and wait. Write if you need to (just to get your feelings out–don’t send it), talk to friends or a counselor, but take time before you address the issue to the person himself. And, when you do, if at all possible, do it face-to-face with lots of time to sort out the details. Beware of the IM and the text-message.

And if you are old enough, remember back to the Cold War days when the initials often heard in daily conversation were not IM, but ICBM–meaning Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

An IM can be a little bit like that, but might just blow up in your face.

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