Virtual Miscommunication and its effect on relationships

See the original post written in January 2011

Whether it’s next door or across the globe, we have gotten used to being able to keep in touch with people.
Long gone are the days of pony express riders who would deliver the most urgent of messages within ‘only’ a few days, long gone are the days of snail mail , postcards and hand written love letters. Nowadays when a person says they prefer the ‘traditional method’ of keeping in touch they mean e-mails and instant messaging and phone calls.
Instant gratification.
But no, we wanted better, faster and easier ways to connect with people. Hence all the new Blogging, microblogging and social media platforms we use these days. WordPress, Blogspot, My space, Facebook, Twitter, What’s app, BlackBerry Messenger.. just to name a few.
Just before we get started, let have a quick look at some of our new/redefined terms:

  • Relationships:
    The interaction between two people through a connection, association, or involvement.
  • Virtual Grudge:
    A feeling of ill will or resentment as a result of harboured because of a real (or fancied) wrong, in the virtual world that is sometimes carried into the physical world.
  • Virtual Credit:
    To name or list one by one in order to determine a total number of times contact has been made and in turn deduce the number of times contact is owed.
  • Virtual Tone:
    The understood manner of speaking by the recipient of the sender.
    (Example described later in this blog post)

I was talking to a friend of mine over the phone the other day and he was arguing the point that virtual communication is one of the driving factors of most relationship problems.

He spoke about the ‘good old days’ when msn messenger and AOL were the latest online chat room craze.
He said that ‘ You would find yourself chatting to your friends on MSN and all of a sudden you’d be involved in a competition of who has the cleverest comebacks and the people you would talk to everyday would suddenly try to be the ones with all the smart-alec jokes…’
An example he used was:

“If you had a girlfriend who always had a picture of the two of you up and you guys broke up she’d change the picture to a dog (for example)

You’re then supposed to try to figure out if she was comparing your relationship to her to a dog?

or if she’s trying to prove that she doesn’t care about the fact that you two have broken up and has just put up a quick picture.
…. then if YOU change the display picture to one of a dog (or any other animal) and try to play at the same game all of a sudden YOU look sad and pathetic”

He also spoke about the “Virtual Grudge” people would get if they felt offended as a result of a miscommunication in the virtual world. He also spoke about “Virtual Credit”, where people would keep in mind the number of times each person has contacted them , or the number of times they had contacted another person.
His example of these two terms was of a person(F1) who contacts their friend (F2) via BBM.

F2 has just popped into bed and is about the fall asleep when he reads the BBM message and in F2s exhaustion falls asleep. F1 see’s that F2 has read the msg and hasn’t replied. This drags on for a few days and F2 still hasn’t replied (forgetting that the message exists.) F1 is still holding on to his “Virtual Grudge” and refuses to contact F2 directly, thinking that F2 OWES F1 a call/msg (Virtual Credit) and refuses to have an imbalance of this virtual credit.

This can go on for hours, days, weeks, or even years depending on the personality of said friend. My friends argument is that had the communication been made face-to-face or over the phone (where facial expressions, body language or at least tone of voice can be interpreted) then the likelihood of such a problem happening would be lessened.
Which takes us to communication. (According to Wikipedia):

is a variety of verbal and non-verbal means of communicating exists such as body language; eye contact, sign language,paralanguage, haptic communication, chronemics, and media such as pictures, graphics, sound, and writing.

When you communicate to people via microblogging tools, such as mobile SMS  , BBM, What’s App and Twitter, you are only left  with being able to interpret the writing, and sometimes, images. (When emoticons are being used or pictures).
Therefore, there is no body language, eye contact or any other form of non-verbal and “heard” verbal (like tone of voice) communication, to add to the interpretation of the message.(unless your using webcams which for the most part aren’t reliable or clear)
My argument was that my friend’s “Virtual Tone” sucked.

What I mean by virtual tone is hard to describe on e-paper! So I will try my best.

For example: On BBM You ask your friend to come out for lunch.

“Hey wanna go out for lunch?”


“Why not?”

“I don’t feel like it!”

“Oh ok, I wasn’t forcing you!”

“I know you weren’t forcing me, I just don’t want to!”

“So why are you yelling!?”

“Dude, I just don’t feel like it ok!”


Here, the virtual tone is misunderstood. Let’s say that this is a typical scenario. The use of exclamation marks indicates (to me) either a person yelling or excitement. Obviously the person wouldn’t be excited to say “I don’t feel like it!” so my interpretation may be that the person is yelling and just doesn’t want to see me =(.

Had the same conversation been over the phone (where tone of voice can also be used to receive a message):

“Hey wanna go out for lunch?” (Happy go lucky)

“No” (dead pan)

“Why not?” (Confused/ concerned)

“I don’t feel like it!” (Forceful, defensive)

“Why babe, what’s wrong?” (Concerned caring)

“It;s just that….blah blah… so I’m really not in the mood” (Depressed/ down)

“Do you wanna talk about it?…over lunch maybe? ” (Concerned/cheeky)

“Hahahaha I do, but not over lunch, do you mind coming over? I’ll feed you” (Down but feeling uplifted)

“Sure, will be there soon!” (Excited, Friendly)

Can you see how the Fifth sentence has differed in both conversations? The Virtual Tone of the depressed friend (receiver) seemed Forceful, uncaring, defensive and unapproachable. It was difficult for the sender to interpret that solely through text.

On the other hand, when tone of voice was introduced (In the second conversation) the sender had more verbal communication to work with in order to understand the receiver better.

  • Click Here for some tips on avoiding virtual miscommunication from an online professor.
  • To learn how to avoid bad habits that lead to miscommunication Click Here 

What do you think? Have all these means of communication helped us? or hindered us?


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