The lack of nonverbal cues in texting often obscures the intended meaning.
- The absence of nonverbal cues in emotional texting often creates more conflict.
- Nonverbal cues are a rich source of information about the honesty and seriousness of the speaker.
- Teenagers often need help in learning how to resolve interpersonal conflicts in person.
Cell phones are everywhere—in airports, restaurants, medical waiting rooms, trains, and even classrooms. The rare exceptions are places of worship and funeral homes. So, if everyone is doing it, except for the occasional book or newspaper reader, what is the problem with all this cell phone usage?
The missing ingredients! Texting communicates information without many nonverbal cues (FaceTime does better). While the lack of nonverbal cues doesn’t matter in factual, scientific, and/or social information, their absence in emotional messaging often leads to misunderstanding, especially when trying to resolve interpersonal conflicts.
One young woman was devastated when a new boyfriend responded via text, “Good idea!” after she texted him that she was going to exercise because she needed to lose some weight. Her upset was due to her assuming that he was referring to her needing to lose weight, which she later found out was wrong. Another teenager was very upset by the text, “We’re done,” sent by a boyfriend. Understandably, she couldn’t tell if he was simply exasperated by their conversation or permanently ending their relationship.
While the significance of nonverbal behavior has been known for decades, dating back to Mehrabian’s early research (1967) demonstrating that body language and vocal qualities were far more important than words alone, it is worthwhile to consider anew what is being missed in this digital age. In Mehrabian’s study, the ratio of importance of nonverbal to verbal behavior was about 9:1.
The Function of Nonverbal Behavior
Discerning when another person is angry, pleased, or disengaged depends heavily on observing eye contact, tone of voice, vocal inflections, facial expressions, gestures, and motor behavior, which cannot be gauged readily via digital means. The phrase, “Sure, I love you” can be said in many ways, each of which communicates something different. When said softly and tenderly, the phrase communicates warmth and affection; when said sarcastically, it communicates indifference and/or resentment. Similarly, the words, “What are you doing?” can express simple curiosity or outrage, depending on tone of voice and which words are emphasized.
Even when there is a contradiction between the words and nonverbal cues, the nonverbal behavior opens up opportunities for further understanding. Contradictions are usually signs of conflict or dishonesty in the speaker. For example, when someone says, “I don’t care,” but looks angry, it is apparent that the speaker has feelings about what just happened. Or when someone frowns while saying, “I’m just fine,” the frown contradicts the spoken words. The listener, however, can respond, “You say you’re fine but you’re frowning; what’s going on?” And the conversation can unfold. Nonverbal cues ordinarily strengthen, minimize, or contradict the spoken words.
A Texting Example
Consider the following texting exchange between a married couple:
He: “Why were you rude to my mother yesterday?”
She: “I was not rude. I just said, ‘It’s been a long time since you visited.’”
He: “That was rude. My mother visited long after your mother visited. It seems you’re always critical of my mother.”
She: “That’s not true. I’m not critical of her. Your mother is critical of me. And why do you always take her side instead of mine?”
And the texting can go on and on, creating more conflict along the way. Typically, in an argument, each person alternates among attack, denial, and counterattack, trying to prove he/she is right rather than being fully attentive to the other person.
In a face-to-face interchange, the words often start out the same, but the advantage is that there is an opportunity to look the other person in the eye, see how hurt or angry he is, figure out what is really bothering him, and modify the approach. The modification could entail softening one’s response, shifting gears entirely, and/or asking for clarification. With more information in an in-person interaction than in texting, the listener has more control and can tailor his/her response to what’s needed rather than reverting to the standard attack, denial, and counterattack formula that people regularly use when criticized.
In the texting example between the married couple, the wife in person would be able to assess via facial expression and tone of voice whether her husband was angry at her or simply trying to understand his mother’s complaint about her. He, on the other hand, would be able to figure out whether his wife was hurt and baffled by the accusation of being rude or defensive because she had been sarcastic with her mother-in-law. Because the texting interchange was truncated and devoid of nonverbal cues, there was ample room for misunderstanding.
Nonverbal cues are a rich source of information about the seriousness, honesty, and underlying concerns of the person who initiated the discussion. Good vs. poor eye contact, genuine vs. fake smiling, calmness vs. fidgetiness, and an interested gaze vs. the glazed look of disengagement have more impact than words alone.
Because of its many benefits, texting is here to stay. But learning how to resolve conflict between family members, friends, and romantic partners in-person rather than via texting is a wiser, more respectful, and more effective approach. Conflict-resolution skills are valuable tools for any adult, but especially for teenagers, who are just learning to navigate their personal and professional worlds. For them, accustomed as they are to cell phones, learning modules in psychology or social science classes about how to resolve conflict in person would be invaluable. And parents could be helpful in assisting their teenagers to discern when in-person communication would be much better than texting.