Late yesterday afternoon, I was having a conversation with a very close friend that turned into a bad misunderstanding with him hurt and angry and me in tears feeling like the world’s most horrible friend.

How did it happen?  Blackberries.  Yup.  Blackberry Messenger Service.   The whole conversation was in text message.

It got me thinking.  This person is one of my dearest friends.  And every single misunderstanding or fight we’ve had in recent memory has happened via electronic communication: text, email, IM.  I can’t think of one fight we’ve had in person.  In fact, when we’re together, I’d say we’re pretty chilled out! So what on earth happens to us when we put phones in our hands that we wind up in these nasty arguments that would never happen in person???

And then my thoughts turned to a former colleague working in another part of the country that I rarely saw.  Our only communication was very short, terse email demands that would arrive in my inbox.  As soon as I saw his name pop up, my blood pressure would rise and I’d be in a hostile mood before I’d even read it.  It wasn’t until another local colleague made a trip out to see the email offender that things fell into place:  “Melissa, I figured it out – he emails you on his blackberry while he’s driving!  He doesn’t mean to be rude… he’s just saving keystrokes.” Turns out he was a really nice guy!  I’d never have known, otherwise.

Electronic communication is a minefield.  We gobble it up because it’s quick and easy and sometimes (come on, admit it) we just don’t want the hassle of a drawn out phone call or a face to face meeting.

But so much goes missing.  Context goes out the window.  Humor, especially sarcasm, is almost impossible to detect without knowing the person well.  Body language is gone, tone of voice disappears and all you’re left with is stripped down black and white text that can be interpreted 15 different ways, depending on the recipients personality, frame of mind or immediate circumstances.

Email is tricky enough. Once you start shortening communication even further with 140 character tweets or text messages or you respond too quickly with little thought because you are doing 5 other things (I really do not recommend using your phone in this manner behind the wheel of a car), you only increase your chances of being misunderstood. There is little room left for good manners and please and thank you are the first things to go.

I feel a bit stupid that I took so long to pick up on this.  One of my best friends, who lives far away, purchased her first Blackberry last month. We made a pact that day that we would never email each other from our little devices.  All I could think of was that colleague who’s emails I started to dread while Laura’s have always been a highlight of my day. I didn’t want that to change.  And yet.. I never picked up on how my arguments with my other friend all stemmed from one or the other of us (I’ll admit it… usually me) making an unintended gaffe via text message.  (told you, sometimes I can be a bit slow on the uptake!)

Next time you pick up your phone to send a message, remember that there is a recipient on the other end and colleague or friend, they have real feelings and they’re not mind readers.  While you might not mean any harm (in my case it was the last thing on my mind), remember the person on the other side doesn’t have the benefit of hearing your voice or seeing your hands move.  They have to fill in the pieces on their own.

And if you ask somebody for a favour, remember the please.  And if they do it for you, pick up the phone or wait until you are in front of your computer for a few minutes and thank them.  They’ll be a lot more willing to help you out next time!

Oh yes… the misunderstanding? We sorted it out.  All is good 🙂  And I have a personal resolution to rethink the conversations I have via electronic communication.  Maybe the two of us need to come up with a code word when we head down the wrong path.  Maybe “coffee” or “phone call” would work! 😉