Family Secrets

How families are changing and not changing in our multicultural computer-centric world

Facebook versus Face-to-Face

What’s missing when friends connect online?

The social network phenomenon gained even greater prominence in our collective psyche this month due to the new movie, The Social Network, which chronicles the origins of Facebook on the Harvard campus. Having now spread far beyond the realm of college students to include people of all ages in countries throughout the world, Facebook and other social networking sites represent a new way of connecting with friends, colleagues, acquaintances, friends-of-friends, and even people we don't know who want to ‘friend' us via the internet.

But when we communicate online, whether it's on Facebook or through email, or when we tweet or text, what's missing? What specific elements do we miss out on when we trade face-to-face communication for connecting through our computer or blackberry? It may seem obvious to some, but I think we tend to forget about the importance of body language, voice inflection, and the simple act of looking someone in the eye during a conversation. Granted, technologies such as Skype can provide us with the screen image of the person to whom we're talking. But is eye contact as palpable on a screen as it is in person? And how ‘undivided' is our attention when we're reading someone's email message, as opposed to when we're sitting across a table from them? Can a text message convey the nuance of a facial expression?

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I've had young clients tell me about serious disagreements they've had with friends when text messages and emails are misunderstood. We've discussed how easily words can be misinterpreted when they are isolated from body language, and how texts and emails can convey the wrong messages about how you really feel. There is something stilted about online conversations because a certain dimension of emotion is missing, a dimension that only exists when two people are face to face. Body language, facial expression, and the tone and inflection of our voice all play a part in communicating our feelings.

I've suggested that my clients try this exercise, which demonstrates how important in-person factors are in communicating your true emotions. I have them speak the same sentence three times, each time expressing a different attitude or emotional tone. For example, if you have to break a date with a friend, you might say, ‘I'm sorry I couldn't make it but something else came up.' That sentence could be stated with frustration, sarcasm, or compassion. One could speak the words while smiling, scowling, or putting one's arm around the friend's shoulder. When clients try this simple exercise, they realize how the message changes depending on how the words are spoken and what gestures are used.

Our facial expression, physical gestures, and the emotional tone in our voice alter the meaning of our words, which is why it is very difficult to express ourselves fully and authentically in an email or text-or even in front of a Skype screen. So when we forego face-to-face encounters in favor of screen-speak or emailed or texted words, our friends receive only a partial message. What's missing are the feelings that inform the words.

How to reconnect words to feelings? Fewer texts, less Facebook, and more face time.

- Dr. Ana Nogales

Ana Nogales is a clinical psychologist and well-known media personality, columnist, speaker, and advocate for victims of domestic violence.

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