The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

High-Tech Hugging

Where I work, our tech department has been rolling out a new communications system. With it, nearly all company communication is integrated and computer-based. One of the features is Instant Messaging. I realize IM isn’t anything new, but this is my first experience with it in a corporate context. I haven’t really IMed anyone since I was 17. I quit one night after I stayed up until 2 a.m. I’d had enough.

Fortunately, I haven’t had any late night chats with colleagues. Yet. But recently I was IMing a colleague, asking him to send me a document I needed. He promised to send it, and I responded and concluded by typing “Thanks!”

I paused. I looked at that exclamation point. It looked far too enthusiastic to me. I certainly appreciated that my colleague was sending me the file, but I wasn’t overjoyed about it. That exclamation point suggested something closer to “overjoyed.” I hit Enter anyway. The end.

The hype of that exclamation point got me thinking again about the ways in which the medium shapes the message. What I mean is that, when we communicate, we have to adjust our message to the technology we’re using. In this case, it was IM. On IM, I could only type text, so I only had a couple ways of punctuating my gratitude. I made a list.

“Thanks!”

“Thanks.”

“Thanks . . .”

“Thanks :)”

“Thanks”

Each punctuation mark suggests something different. I was going for business casual. Which one said business casual? The period is a bit understated and formal; it feels like I’m just going through the motions and really don’t care at all, and maybe that I’m a little cold and entitled. The ellipsis suggests there might be more. Who knows? Wait for it. Wait for it. The emoticon is a bit weird in the corporate world. There's no business casual about it. It suggests that I’m smiling at my own words, being playful, maybe a bit ironic. The unpunctuated “Thanks” is similar to the period: mostly indifferent about the whole matter. Business indifferent, but not business casual.

All that to say, there are a lot of ways to textually communicate gratitude, and for the most part the variety we have is sufficient. But we’re still restricted to communicating with typed words in uniform fonts. Instant Messaging requires text to communicate. There’s not another option—use text.

The real question I'm asking is, How does the technology limit communication? We typically focus on how our new technologies enable communication, but they also disable communication in certain ways. For example, we must use words. IM requires, “No gestures, postures, tones, inflections, or facial expressions allowed.” Even if I type some gesture like “” or “ROFL,” I’m still typing it. It’s still text-based communication.

I mean, if I had been speaking face-to-face with my colleague and had wanted to express my gratitude, maybe I could have gone ahead and hugged him. Do away altogether with “Thanks exclamation point.” Really, when you have a hug at your disposal, what more do you need? Sure it’s awkward. Sure you’ll probably be having a meeting with HR soon. But you can’t hug someone over IM. That’s what I’m trying to say. IM enables text-based communication. It disables hugging.

Email, instant messaging, phone calls, text messaging, and even Skype enable long-distance communication, but they all disable hugging. This disability is what we often fail to recognize. We think of what technology can do. And we are advertised all of its possibilities. But those possibilities distract us long enough to get adopted and be integrated into our lives before we realize the things it doesn’t let us do—things like hugging. Sometimes it takes decades to realize this. Sometimes we never do.

So maybe in this case, with hugging, IM is well-suited to the corporate environment. Maybe it’s a good thing that coworkers leave their hugs in their cars and don’t bring them into the office.

But what about in the other parts of our lives? We’ve integrated most of these same technologies into our personal lives as well, if not more so. IM, text messages, email. How are those technologies disabling us from really communicating—from using gestures, postures, tones, inflections, or facial expressions? How can an emoticon in a text message really help us distinguish between sarcasm, irony, playfulness, laughter, and gratitude? It can’t. In nearly every communications technology, we have to use words for all those things. And words are a medium too—a technology just like a computer is technology. And sometimes words work no better than emoticons do.

I am frustrated by these limitations on a regular basis. It happened to me again last week. I felt like my arms were cut off. But I’m not the greatest with words. I have to use a lot of them to say anything meaningful. I wish I were pithy, but I am verbose.

Not long ago, I went to buy some new dress shirts for work (business casual). I always have to buy shirts with extra-long sleeves, otherwise my wrists get cold. What I’m saying is, I’m way better at hugging than talking sometimes. And you can’t mediate that.

Your mom taught you well