Fixing the Emotional Gap in Online Communication

“I’m going to kill you!”

What does that sentence mean? Read it in a few different tones, and you can hear a sincere threat, simple anger, or a playful outburst. Text-based communication doesn’t really give you that level of understanding, though, and since that’s how the Internet works, the ambiguity can be a problem. Luckily, human language evolves when it’s confronted with a challenge, and while the lack of context can lead to a lot of misunderstandings, Internet-speak has developed some conventions to help get your mood across.

The problems

If you’ve been around social media, text, or email long enough, you’ve seen the fallout that can arise from an intended joke that somebody didn’t understand was a joke and probably witnessed/experienced other emotional firestorms. It’s not just you, either – multiple experiments have confirmed that people just aren’t as good at communicating emotion via text as they think they are. So what’s causing the disconnect?

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Lack of non-verbal cues: On social media your words are like song lyrics with no music. It’s helpful to know if those words are being sung softly over a piano or screamed over a crunching guitar. Exactly how much of our communication is non-verbal varies depending on the situation, but it’s not an insignificant amount. Your expression, tone, posture, social setting, and a myriad of other factors are adding essential metadata, and without it, our accuracy suffers.

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Egocentrism: You know what you mean, so why doesn’t everybody else? Everyone sees reality differently, but because 100% of our life experience is from our perspective, we naturally default to communicating with people in a way that we would understand. When we type words out, we hear them being said a certain way in our own head, but that metadata doesn’t come attached. It’s like tapping out the rhythm to a song. You hear the melody in your head, but nobody else has that advantage.

The negativity effect: We often assume the worst, especially when we get terse, formal emails, where language tends to come across as much less warm and more negative than the writer intended.

Asynchronous communication: The lack of immediate responses can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and lower one’s perception of consequence for saying something unkind.

Unintended audiences: You might write your post for an audience who you know will understand, only to have it misinterpreted by someone not in that audience.

A few ways language has adapted

There’s no “big fix” for the computer-mediated communication gap. If we wanted to convey all the meta-language we do in person, every text and post would have to be its own short story. There are a few things that can help, though.

  • Emojis/Emoticons :) the candy of written communication. A few of them make everything seem a little sweeter, but too many = a syrupy mess :( These work really well as emotional accents and can indicate everything from happiness :) to humor ;D to skepticism :-/ but have a fairly limited range and can be misinterpreted. One person’s “Playful tongue sticking out” emoji could be another person’s “I’m making fun of you” emoji.

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  • GIFs: It’s not HD quality, but it loops, loads fast, and actually gives you a way to add real body language to your text. GIFs are a lot more expressive than emoticons, and it’s not too hard to find one that sums up your tone in a relatable way. They’re non-standardized and bulky, though, so sticking too many of them into your conversations gets annoying fast, and they only work well with platforms that integrate a good search feature.

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  • Exclamation points!!! These used to be the Red Bull of punctuation, only for use when you really need the energy. In online communication, though, they’ve come to be a marker of enthusiasm and warmth. “Sounds good.” could be read in a lot of tones, but “Sounds good!” is probably meant to be cheerful. Putting them after every sentence will make you sound like a chipmunk, but used judiciously, they’re a clear, yet conventional way to signal that you’re not angry. One point is fine for your semi-formal conversations, but three can really get your excitement across on a Facebook comment!

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  • Ellipses … This one actually causes more problems than it solves, since it’s literally meant to be ambiguous. In informal writing, leaving something unsaid at the end of the sentence can convey disappointment (“You didn’t call me …”) or even passive-aggression (“Whatever … it’s okay …”). In formal writing it stands in for less-relevant information. It’s often used as a way to make the sentence ending sound “softer,” but it’s very easily misread as a negative emotion, so it’s better to avoid it and stick with the friendlier exclamation point.

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  • CAPITALS: WHILE YOU SHOULD NEVER TYPE A COMPLETE MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS, they CAN be an excellent way to emphasize words, especially when you don’t have access to italics.

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  • Acronyms/Internet slang lol: The instant-messaging age spawned uncountable acronyms, and the strongest among them have survived, with new ones being born and put up for meme candidacy every day. LOL, OMG, SMH, and many others can be used as emotional markers, but much like other new language, they can be generationally-affiliated, so, real talk, don’t try too hard to look woke.

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  • Hahaha/jajaja/555/ㅋㅋㅋ/ : You can laugh in a lot of languages online, probably because it’s universally understood as a mood-lightening marker. Nervous atmospheric laughter is a normal part of human conversation, so it makes sense that we put it in our text as well.

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  • Extra letterssssss: Humans naturally vary our syllable length along with our word tones, so adding a feeeew extra letters can sometimes make your meaning a liiittle clearer. It’s like adding a little humming to the rhythm when you’re trying to tap out a tune for someone.

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Don’t be afraid to show your feelings

Humans are great at adapting to new environments, and our language comes along with us. It took us quite a while to standardize grammar and punctuation after inventing writing, and bridging the Internet tone gap could turn out to be the same way. The low-context settings we often find ourselves in online are full of opportunities to misunderstand and to be misunderstood, so judicious use of emotional signaling certainly isn’t a bad thing. Parts of it may feel trivial, juvenile, or annoying, but it’s all part of the process of figuring out what works and, ultimately, understanding each other better.

6 comments

  1. “multiple experiments have confirmed that people just aren’t as good at communicating emotion via text as they think they are”

    There is a contrary view. I think texting is a huge improvement to all readable communications right from Sumerian/Ancient Egypt times. Shouldn’t be thought of as a poor substitute for actual communication. Who knows someday they might be included in actual dictionaries. :)

    1. Hey Sayak! Actually, that’s my whole argument–I’m saying that text-based communication has always been ambiguous, but that as it starts to take up a larger share of our daily interactions, we’re evolving ways to include non-verbal cues in written communication. I believe the experiments were conducted without any tonal markers like emoticons/images in an effort to show that plain-text communications don’t carry emotion very well. I actually agree that emotional signalling is an improvement to the written language :)

      1. I seconded that. Texting has moved to something beyond casual chit chat.

        1- Today texting the wrong person is certainly considered grounds for cheating on a relationship.
        2- Increasingly texts are becoming legally admissible court evidence.
        3- Emojis have acquired near universal acceptance as an integral part of human vocabulary.

        Ancient Chinese language had beautiful pictograms to convey the precise emotional state of the writer. Indo-European languages have always been quite formal. Emojis have bridged this gap. I can’t even begin to tell how indispensable they are today.

        Nice thoughts. I have bookmarked this.

  2. How do you expect people to interpret written communication correctly when many of them do not interpret face-to-face communication correctly where they have not only visual cues but sound cues, as well as body language cues?

  3. Excellent article! I don’t know how many times I have been in discussions with people about what “we” think we are saying ( verbally, or in writing) is not what others are hearing, or reading. This is a big problem in business. Can affect customer relationships very easily.

    1. Absolutely right! I’ve been on the receiving end of some customer support messages that, intentionally or not, sounded pretty rude. Going ultra-formal used to be a pretty safe bet in business, but communication/generational changes have made that a little riskier; highly formal language can be misread as cold or passive-aggressive.

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