We’ve all been there: you receive a message that you don’t want to deal with just yet, so you leave it unread in your inbox. It stays there threateningly, and the longer you leave it, the greater the hurdle is in dealing with it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. Let’s look at why digital conversations shouldn’t be treated like regular, in-person conversations, and why they shouldn’t be a source of stress or anxiety.
Digital conversations – or computer-mediated communication (CMC) – aren’t normal conversations. In a normal conversation, it’s simple enough to figure out whose turn it is to speak, as well as when a conversation might be over. The mechanisms that make this happen are complex and impressive in themselves, but the fact remains that these cues are typically easy to figure out when in person. In CMC, these cues don’t translate, and we’re left feeling stranded about when we should answer.
This applies when we’re in the middle of the conversation, like when you see those infamous three dots telling you someone is typing but you haven’t had the chance to reply to their first message yet. It also applies after someone has said something, but you aren’t sure if you’re supposed to answer or not. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to follow-up on what someone sent you, like an emoji or a low-quality meme.
So how are we supposed to deal with the issues that convenient digital conversations create for us? My solution has been to understand just how different digital conversations are to the ones we have in-person.
Every day we have conversations in different contexts. These contexts depend on who we’re talking with, where we are, and what our relationship is with that person. Sometimes called speech genres, these distinct types of conversations are easily compared to genres in other mediums, such as genres of novel or movies.
If we usually treat these types of conversations as separate genres with their own rules, then why aren’t we treating digital conversations in the same way? While there exist multiple genres within the scope of digital conversations, the fact remains that these are all distinct from the pre-existing genres of our in-person life, and our associations shouldn’t be simply transferred over.
Many people already treat different genres of digital conversations differently. I’d even go as far as to argue that most people understand subtle differences between genres, like the differences between email or text. But these digital genres are also different to in-person genres. Going back to our email example, writing an email to your supervisor isn’t the same as talking to them in person. Even casual digital conversations are different than casual in person conversations, and the rules and conventions of both can’t be equated.
This is the first thing to understand when looking at how you treat digital conversations. Understanding speech will help you relax into your writing. This applies particularly well to those who have anxiety in social situations. Because digital conversations don’t follow standard social conventions, you don’t have to be worried about making a digital gaffe.
Never ending conversations
Don’t try and compare in-person speech genres to digital conversations. While an email might sometimes feel like a high-pressure situation, the benefits afforded by email should be taking pressure of your shoulders. There’s very rarely a good reason to rush a message online, and this applies regardless of speech genres. One of the main advantages they bring is the ability to pick your words before sending them out.
Even so-called instant messaging is a bit of a misnomer. While the messages go out instantly, you shouldn’t feel pressured to reply instantly. Take your time in answering messages. More importantly, realize that digital conversations don’t ever end. There’s no reason to rush into a reply when messages can be sent at any time. Because you can’t be sure when your message will be read, there’s little reason to send a reply just as you receive a message.
You might be thinking that not replying right away is rude but consider that you wouldn’t ask the people you’re talking with to answer at an inconvenient time. Digital conversations function on an agreement that people won’t reply when they don’t want to and won’t expect others to reply when it’s inconvenient for them.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any tricks to understanding the pace at which digital conversations go. Some folks answer quite fast, while others take their time. A good approach to figuring out how fast you should be replying is to gauge how fast your conversation partner is answering. The key is in adapting yourself to a middle ground between what you’re comfortable with, and what the other person expects.
So far, we’ve made it clear that digital conversations have different standards and conventions than in-person conversations. Another one of these differences is in writing standards.
Different writing standards
When looking at the differences in writing standards between digital conversations and in-person conversations (or even non-digital writing), one element that gets brought up is abbreviations. While abbreviations are used in CMC, they’re not as widespread as folks make them out to be. Abbreviations are tied to specific digital speech genres, so their application is limited to specific types of conversations. You have to be really out of touch to think that all abbreviations can be used at any time.
Another writing standard that differs is in the use of periods. This is often less discussed, but research has shown that the period is often dropped in CMC, and this trend is best compared to writing a note when it comes to non-digital writing. This is an important lesson to keep in mind because it helps set the tone for how you should see digital conversations. Imagine that your messages are sticky notes that you leave for the people you’re talking to. You don’t need to write full sentences, and you don’t need to treat it as if it was an in-person conversation. In fact, it’s more common for folks to leave out the period in instant messaging than it is to leave it in.
Sticky notes are somewhere in between regular conversations and a more formal speech genre like a letter. That’s why I think they’re a good comparison to most digital conversations that are neither formal nor informal. One thing is certain though: writing a sticky note is a no-pressure situation, which is how you should feel in dealing with digital conversations.
It should be clear that you shouldn’t be treating CMC as if it was a formal genre of writing. This is related to the last point I’ll be covering: the lack of physical language in digital communication.
Lack of physical language
Some cues that smooth out in-person conversations are physical. Whether it’s actual body language and physical movement or simply facial expressions, in-person conversations tend to have greater and richer information for us to gauge how the conversation is going.
That’s not to say that CMC doesn’t have rich elements to help us come across how we intend to. Technology has made it possible to react to what our conversation partner is saying by using emojis (and emoticons before that), as well as GIFs, pictures, memes, and even avatar reactions.
Despite all this, it’s still difficult to make it all feel natural. There’s also an inherent delay in the way we use CMC, and as a result, all reactions are delayed, which serves to increase the anxiety of not knowing how a message was taken.
Understand that committing a faux pas in a digital conversation is normal because you don’t have a way to gauge how your conversation partner is doing, or how they’re taking what you’re saying. You should also keep in mind that almost everyone has been in your position, whether it’s about drafting an email to your boss, to your significant other, or to a new acquaintance.
There are as many reasons to worry about digital conversations as there are solutions to your worries. At the end of the day, digital conversations are vastly different from in-person conversations, and you shouldn’t feel like you have any serious expectations to meet because the genres of CMC haven’t been formalized enough to feel pressured by convention.
Take a deep breath, figure out how your conversation partner is talking and what they’re trying to say, and from there take your time in replying. At the end of the day, the real revolution that CMC brings about is giving us time to think.
I had previously tangled with CMC and the standards of language in one of my university classes. Being able to callback to research I had already done was really useful in writing this. Most of these articles are accessible and are a great place to start reading more about the rules and conventions of digital conversations and computer mediated communication.
Bakhtin, M., & Ghāsemipour, G. (2011). The problem of speech genres. Literary Criticism, 4(15), 114-136.
Gunraj, D. N., Drumm-Hewitt, A. M., Dashow, E. M., Upadhyay, S. S. N., & Klin, C. M. (2016). Texting insincerely: The role of the period in text messaging. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 1067-1075.
Tagliamonte, S. A., & Denis, D. (2008). Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging and teen language. American speech, 83(1), 3-34.
Wildner-Bassett, M. E. (2005). CMC as written conversation: A critical social-constructivist view of multiple identities and cultural positioning in the L2/C2 classroom. Calico Journal, 635-656.