What are we hiding when we text instead of being there?

Burqa

When we text, our nonverbals hide behind a veil of technology.

There are many of good reasons to communicate digitally. It's convenient, of course, and we often have no choice because we're miles away from the people we want to talk to. But more and more, we seem to rely on emailing, texting, tweeting, and Facebooking when a face-to-face interaction is available.

What are we losing when we rely on text only? First, we lose the sounds of our voices—we can't readily tell if the speaker is cheerful or angry or whether she's being sincere or ironic; and we can't tell if the whole truth is spewing forth rapidly or if the speaker is haltingly choosing each word. Our ability to interpret the full extent of the message is impoverished.

But even more than that, we miss two important sources of human communication. We miss the facial expressions and the body language that are so crucial in interpreting what the words really mean. It's as if we were all wearing burqas, hiding behind a thick fabric of technology.

Beyond the ability of facial expressions and bodily posture to add meaning to words, these modes of nonverbal communication convey emotional cues that affect relationships and feelings.

Smile

Smiles produce pleasurable feelings.

One example is the smile. There is amazing research about smiling. Genuine smiles (so-called "Duchenne" smiles) involve the eyes as well as the mouth. Smiling these smiles produces physiological changes in the brain that the smiler experiences as pleasurable (1). Why are we designed to feel good when we smile? Smiling communicates positive affect and looks very different from an angry face, which signals potential aggression. Our species survived more successfully because we formed groups that joined together to care for their young and for each other.

Having someone smile at us is also pleasant. Why does that make us feel good? For one thing, we sense they mean us no harm. But in addition, our mirror neurons predispose us to smile, too, which causes us to experience those pleasurable feelings ourselves (2). So a pleasant face-to-face interaction can create a positive boost in mood.

Why not use Skype then? We can see each other's smiles and hear each other's voices when we communicate in real time via video. But Skype doesn't convey important postural cues. With Skype, we can't signal affiliation to each other by standing close and leaning in, or communicate remoteness by keeping our distance. And of course we can't express warmth and support by putting an arm around someone's shoulder or holding their hand.

Nonverbal gestures of affiliation are powerful. Images from Over & Carpenter (2009).

How important are postural cues of affiliation? Children as young as a year and a half are very sensitive to these cues in others. In a remarkable recent study (3), children who looked at pictures that had background images of dolls standing close together and facing each other were subsequently more likely to help another person than children exposed to dolls facing away from each other or children who did not see dolls in the background at all. Very subtle postural cues to affiliation are easily communicated and have strong effects on prosocial behavior, even in infants.

So think about what you gain and lose when you're choosing your mode of communication. Be it professional or personal, when the relationship or the subtlety of the message is important, relying on text alone can lose a lot. Ask yourself whether being there isn't worth the effort.

(1) Ekman, P., & Davidson, R. J. (1993). Voluntary smiling changes regional brain activity. Psychological Science, 4 (5), 342-345.
(2) Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
(3) Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2009). Eighteen-month-old infants show increased helping following priming with affiliation. Psychological Science, 20,1189-1193.

About the Author

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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