Communication takes place on two simultaneous levels – the verbal and non-verbal. Verbal interactions rely on spoken conversation to transfer information from one person to another. That’s right, talking is the sharing of information.
How we share information is more than just words spoken; it requires the listening target to comprehend and process information quickly and respond appropriately. Removing non-verbal cues from communication leads to risks of confusion, misunderstandings, and sometimes offense.
Basic computer-mediated communication (CMC) relies upon only the written text to relay information, lacking non-verbal cues. While some feel this is a more efficient method of interaction with fewer emotional distractions, humans remain emotional beings that process information differently from one another.
Examples of CMC
Electronic communication takes place on a variety of platforms using digital technology. Some of these methods include:
- Social Networks
- Text and Instant Messages
- Online Live Chats
Since smartphones and other portable tools such as iPads are carried in the hands of most individuals, access to CMC is readily available. The convenience of sending a message across thousands of miles without concern for time zone differences or cost makes CMC seem like the perfect way to share information.
But the drawbacks of convenience start with quality. Abbreviated or expedited conversations lack depth and thoughts often hang incomplete, with the message receiver left to sort through the intent or purpose. In a rush to answer a text message, grammatical errors are not the only mistakes made.
Social media sites and applications developed ways to add the human component back into computerized communication with the use of cameras and microphones. Programs like Skype and Face-Time try to fill the gap by making face-to-face conversations available in a virtual setting.
Since these programs allow more shared information through the reintroduction of non-verbal cues, they also improve the efficacy of CMC.
Non-verbal communication has deeper roots and takes place both on a conscious and subconscious level. Facial expression and gestures are habitual, and while you can work to control those over time, the usual reaction is to smile when happy or wave when you see a friend.
Body language, including your posture, gives your audience (whether it is one person or an entire auditorium full of people) information about the speaker such as confidence, stress or fatigue. Slumped shoulders could be from being tired or from chronic pain. Either way, the person receiving your message must also calculate this additional information before choosing how to accept spoken words.
While Shakespeare hardly said it first, psychologists proved that the eyes are truly the windows to the soul. Pupil dilation, holding eye contact or gazing longingly at something other than the person speaking all function as non-verbal cues.
We learn to read eyes and interpret emotion through them as children. Difficulty interpreting emotional cues is common in children on the autism spectrum, and ASD individuals often struggle to maintain eye contact while speaking.
Your voice is just as important as your words. Tone and inflection provide information about mood and give signals to the listener about expectations. If a sentence ends with an upward swing in tone, the subject realizes you have asked a question and expect a response.
Words spoken without emotion can express a lack of interest in what the speaker has to say. Short, curt responses give the impression you perhaps do not wish to interact with someone at all, whereas light and happy tones show you are open to conversing.
Haptic communication involves direct touching of another individual. This can be received as affectionate or aggressive when paired with facial cues and tone. Social norms and cultural expectations also set proxemic boundaries or adequate personal space. Some people are “huggers” while others are very uncomfortable when touched by others regardless of familiarity.
Computer-mediated communication removes the face of the speaker. This means the receiver of a message must commit an amount of trust in the information given. Do you know who is really on the other side of the screen? Is the sender who they claim and could you prove otherwise if needed?
While you may be thrilled that you can work from home in pajamas using CMC, would you share that information with a high-level supervisor? Filtering information by removing non-verbal cues including appearance can work for or against a user and greater care should be taken with CMC to maintain a trustworthy relationship.
Others choose to use CMC as a tool for wrongdoing. They create false avatars and profiles to earn trust while stealing personal information, stalking potential targets, or conducting other illegal activities they would never be willing to do in person.
While our personalities develop and evolve, some traits like aggression stay with us into adulthood. Children with aggressive tendencies already show difficulties with social understanding and processing non-verbal cues, add to the loss of emotional cues with CMC and the likelihood of anti-social behavior increases.
Social information processing (SIP) describes how your brain makes decisions regarding the behavior of others. The cognitive development of young people helps them understand and process social interactions, and those tools carry over into adulthood. Losing those additional cues do more than frustrate someone, they can cause difficulties when building relationships.
Individuals suffering from social anxiety disorder (SAD) tend to misinterpret non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, negatively. They are likely to see neutral situations as adverse or threatening. The loss of face to face cues in electronic communications leave SAD victims susceptible to additional social anxiety because of their tendency to see neutral things in a negative light.
Studies support people are more willing to speak out negatively when they do not have to face the subject of their opinions in person. This degree of anonymity empowers some to target individuals or groups without fear of retribution.
Wrapped in the cape called freedom of speech, some people choose CMC methods to enhance their ability to harass or bully others. CMC provides a soapbox for anyone with internet access. Just as noise from too many can drown out the voices of reason, so do lines and lines of angry text wash away the opportunity for intelligent debate.
Teenagers are growing up with technology at their fingertips. They have a world of information and communication options at hand, so they have the option of staying in constant contact with friends and their social network without ever leaving the house.
The feeling of contact is indirect and a poor substitute for actual face to face interaction. Humans are evolved to read and interpret social cues as a survival technique, but those skills are learned. By keeping contact with other digital instead of in person, over time the ability to read non-verbal skills degrades.
Texting and sending clips via Snapchat do not build long-term foundations of trust. The ability to update one’s status several times a day does not build the same relationship as walking side by side with another human being.
As attention spans shorten, and information blasts from every piece of technology around you, it becomes harder to focus and harder still to comprehend everything at once. By encapsulating humans in text form and losing non-verbal cues, we become more like the machines we play with and less human.
The Emoticon Phenomenon
Programmers developed a defense against the lack of cues – the emoji. Emoticons depict simple smiley or sad faces. Their addition to text and instant messages helps direct the tone and provides some guidelines for the receiver to understand the intent better.
Emojis are not the same as emoticons. Emoticons are simple emotional icons. Emojis, based on the Japanese “e” for picture and “moji” for a character, involve pictographs with details such as color, multiple characters (like a family) or animation.
The addition of these characters allows for the injection of non-verbal cues back into the world of digits and letters. The invention of the gif is another method created to add emotions and bring the human aspect back into the written text.
It’s Not All Bad
CMC offers some advantages, it’s true. Translating software allows better communication across borders and demographics. People do not need to be wealthy to have immediate access across oceans. The ability to transfer stories, photos, and video let previously unreachable regions to share firsthand knowledge of anything from a political strain to weather updates.
Under the cognitive load theory (CLT), researchers found the reduction of cues helpful in memory retention. The CLT concept that your brain can only process so many things at once supports that CMC used for learning means there are fewer distractions during sessions. For instance, taking a course online means you don’t have students talking in class and other similar disruptions.
When phones and face to face interaction are logistically impossible, CMC still provides some communication – which is better than no contact at all. The world-wide platform of computerized media continues to grow at tremendous speed, meaning the available audience for CMC is massive.