Back in the 1990’s, when it was still new to many people, my work involved conducting workshops about online communication. Twenty years later, most of what I taught then is common knowledge. But there are still a few points that might usefully be revisited.

One principle is that “silence cannot be interpreted.” When we are missing information, often our imaginations fill in the blanks with our fears and suspicions. Alternatively, our imaginations might fill in the blanks by creating a fantasy of that which we wish were true. Neither tendency is reliable. Without solid clues, you can’t know what is in those blanks.

Without the cues of body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and observing real-world actions, written communication leaves out a lot of information. People feel very deep emotions through the written word and very deep connections to other people. Thoughts put into writing can go very, very deep and be very expressive. But they are still only partial.

Imagine the phrase, “Thank you,” as said by the following:

  • Growled by a surly clerk at Motor Vehicles after stamping your paperwork
  • Squealed with glee by a child who just received a wished-for toy
  • Sneered with sarcasm by someone calling an insult to your attention
  • Whispered tearfully by your lover in an intimate moment

The words are the same, but the meaning behind them could not be more different in these situations. You discern the meaning—and the sincerity—not from the words, but from the non-verbal cues—cues we don’t always have available online. Without that information, our imaginations make assumptions that may or may not be correct.

Some of us compensate for this lack of information by trying to add expression to our words through emoticons, or just by writing more elaborately. That can be very helpful. Unfortunately, it can also be a trap. It’s helpful when you are communicating something genuine. It’s not so helpful when one is communicating something false.

From time to time, one will encounter a person, quite skilled in the use of language, who seems to be very friendly, courteous and kind. Sadly, based only on their words, we cannot know for sure if they are genuine. They might say to you:

  • [Name] smiles softly. “Thank you, my friend.”

At first glance, this seems to communicate warmth, and friendship. It might inspire trust. Alas, you cannot really know whether this person really is smiling softly, or if they are blank-faced, or yawning, or laughing derisively behind the screen. I hate this, because words like those above appeal to my own fantasies about warmth and kindness. I really want them to be true.

For my own self-protection, over the years I have learned not to form opinions about people online based on what they say, or how they say it. Instead, I form opinions based on what people do—how they treat people, the choices they make, the actions they take. I love words. But actions mean more.

I admit I am disappointed when I meet someone whose words project an image of kindness and nobility, but whose actions reveal them to be manipulative, self-serving and deceitful. I really want them to be that kind, warm person, and it is a big disappointment to learn otherwise.

It is far better to place my trust in someone whose real-life actions repeatedly demonstrate generosity, honesty, kindness and real caring.

Being “nice” is only a façade if it goes no deeper than words and expressions. Buying into the appearance of niceness is a great way to get hurt.

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