Communication In the Digital Age – Lost in Translation

2011 March 1
by Grace Boyle

I remember it used to always be face-to-face. If not face-to-face, a phone call, a house phone…with a cord in the wall.

Today: important, hearty, deep, intense information is relayed online or electronically. Subsequently, much of our communication is lost in translation. When sharing a story or comment if we don’t properly display a “!” or a “:)” the communication could be taken totally the wrong way.

The receiver cannot hear our voice, cannot watch our body language, cannot see our smile (or frown) and cannot use their innate human senses. Rather, they read a comment and if they are having a bad day, if they misread (or aren’t good at reading between the lines) the message interpretation is up to the receiver.

In this type of communication, conclusions are jumped to constantly.


After dating for over two years my high school boyfriend broke up with me on the phone (note: we’re since great friends and laugh about our younger days). Granted, I was in high school but you can imagine my disdain. We lived in the same small hometown, grew up together, had been longtime friends before dating and had the exact same friends. We lived five minutes from each other.

We saw each other (inevitably) in school the next day after his ominous and surprising phone call. I was bewildered, in shock and hurt. Even to this day, he isn’t sure why it came out on the phone – why not just drive those five minutes and TELL me? My one question, “Why couldn’t you look me in the face? Why on the phone?”

I crave in person meetings. I want to look at your face. I want to see the way your lips twitch upwards, nervously. I want to see when eyes twinkle, or drip in sadness. I want to see when you huff and puff, roll your eyes or cross your arms indignantly. You cannot see any of this in a text message, e-mail or in on a Facebook wall. These verbal clues are absent, leaving us devoid of the true expression behind the communication.

Serious Conversations…By Text?

I have many serious conversations or received information via G-Chat, on the phone (reasonable, many friends live far away) or by text. It’s pretty standard. It’s not bad, per say. It’s instant, it’s quick, it’s how we communicate.

We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the “silent fluency” that comes from face-to-face interaction. It is a skill that we all must learn, in actual social settings, from people (often older) who are adept in the idiom. As text-centered messaging increases, such occasions diminish. The digital natives improve their adroitness at the keyboard, but when it comes to their capacity to “read” the behavior of others, they are all thumbs. –Wall Street Journal

I feel badly and I wish I was sitting with this person talking face to face. If a conversation is escalating, I always take it “offline.” At the very best, video chat or phone if we cannot communicate in person.

Unfortunately, when a text flies by you and the response is misread or confused because of the lack of emotion or it’s read ‘wrong’ or without hearing my kind voice you assume it’s me being short with you because it’s a one sentence text without emoticons, OR you’re multitasking, talking to someone in person, watching TV and texting back to your friend, is it too late? Will this keep happening?

I think as much as we’re enabled by technology that it strips us of the human emotion and hinders our ability to communicate truthfully.

Expressing Yourself Eloquently? Or LOL, OMG, !!!:

As a lover of words and missing the lost-art of letter writing I think about this also, historically, “If Jefferson had sent text messages to Adams, think what would have been lost to history?” As the digital gal that I am, I communicate with many of you via this blog. But even as I output information, stories and blog posts – the communication of “stealing” someone else’s content has become infinitely easier. Cut, paste, post, inauthentic, no one sniffs it out or really cares. It’s a vast rabbit hole.

I think there are multiple ways to express yourself. Writing, has been a beautiful way to eloquently express in words, your emotions, your mind, your heart.

But, “Hi, g2g to work. So tired, lol. Tlk soon 😉 xo. G-unit.”

Not exactly the likes of Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy, huh?

With information overload at the forefront of our generation, a recent study showed that in 2005 people spent about one minute consuming media for every 1,000 minutes available—a ratio that has grown roughly tenfold since 1960.

However I can, I will focus on the human interaction. I will focus my attention on my friend, even if it’s a text message and properly display how I feel (show, don’t tell, right?) I will pick up the phone, even if it’s serious and it’s easier to skirt the ominous topic by e-mail. I will focus on the authenticity, whenever I can. I put away my electronics at dinner, and sit and look you in the eye and talk to keep it real. I use social media, I work in social media and I have two blogs, but I will still always portray my honest opinion, belief and voice (as much as possible). I promise you that.

Have you been lost in translation? Has an e-mail been read wrong? Have you been able to 100% portray how you feel, without being face to face? Where is our communication going?

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  • Susan Pogorzelski

    What I love about this post, Grace, is that you bring attention to the many forms of communication and recognize the beauty in all of it — being a writer and being at the forefront of social media with your career, you’re able to bridge the two.

    Which isn’t so easy for the vast majority of younger people who have grown up with only technology at their fingertips, something that I’m a bit nervous about for future generations.

    I love technology. I love the gadgetry, the movement, the ease and convenience. I love how I can pick up the phone and with the touch of a screen I can call my best friends without trying to think of their number, love how I can send a simple “virtual hug” across the digital air to let a friend know I’m thinking of them…sometimes a conversation isn’t needed, sometimes a smile — even in type — can mean everything.

    At the same time, as a similar love of words (and history), the art of writing itself is something I dearly hope is never lost. It’s true as you say that so much can be lost in translation when you don’t see a person physically or hear the smile (or irritation) in their voice, but what seems more of a shame to me in this age of technology is the loss of emotion in our writing.

    Letters — those antiquated means of correspondence — were filled with such emotion, such depth. People couldn’t pull a phone out of their pocket and catch up at a moment’s notice, couldn’t fly across oceans to share the stories of their lives. So they wrote letters, sharing their lives through words, and I think the time it took to sit down and write those letters allowed for some of that reflection and depth.

    Maybe I’m romanticizing it, but that’s what I love, that’s what I fear losing — that reflection and depth in our corresponding with each other, the beauty of language and emotion. I love technology, love that blogging especially gives us a way to express ourselves much like we may have written in letters, love being able to call and be there instantaneously when someone needs it…I just hope that we don’t become so caught up in ease and convenience that we strip away depth, the “human emotion, hindering our ability to communicate truthfully,” as you so eloquently say.

    Love this post. Probably much more than I realized when I first started the comment, sorry! Thanks for getting the thoughts flowing, Grace! Beautiful post!

  • Ameena

    Just yesterday I had been sitting in the living room with my roommate for several hours. Conversation was light and natural. Nothing seemed off. Twenty minutes after she left I received a text from her concerning a rather serious subject. I wasn’t really upset about the subject of the text, but more so about the fact that she had to wait until she left my company to talk to me about the issue. It really does beak my heart that we can’t talk about things face to face. I completely agree with you that our social media age can be both a gift and a curse. Learning how and when to properly use it is something we could all work on.

  • Erin Block

    It’s all about moderation. I absolutely love blogging and social media and its many applications. Because, as you said, Grace, so many of my friends also live far away. I am from a very closely-knit family, and they all live out of state. That is why I started a Facebook page and a blog in the first place, to stay connected with family, to be a part of their everyday lives. However, it has also opened up so many more “friendships” as well…

    Yet, face-to-face can never be replaced — the glance of an eye, the sense of a handshake, a touch on the shoulder, the emotion in a timbred voice….A ” =) ” can never even begin to convey those things….

    Such a great post, Grace! Thanks!

  • Alyx koch

    I recently found your blog, and I gotta say that I’m glad I finally found someone that feels the same way I do in regards to communication and it’s decrease due to technology. Granted, it is quicker and more convenient at times, but it takes away so much value in being able to sit down and having a one on one conversation.

  • Laurie Steiner

    As is the case with nearly all of your posts, this one really resonates with me. There have been many instances in which a family member or friend misconstrues my text message or e-mail. There have also been plenty of times in which I have misread or misunderstood the message behind someone’s text message or e-mail. Unfortunately, as technology permeates nearly every facet of our daily lives, it’s very easy for this to happen. But I’m like you… I thrive on face-to-face interaction and personal contact, and I love receiving handwritten notes. There’s a time and a place for everything and it’s important to be mindful of this, especially when it comes to technology.

  • Grace Boyle

    Susan, never apologize for your wonderful comments :) They are so inquisitive and interesting.

    Again, I would encourage you to write your own blog post, piggy backing off your ideas here and what I’ve written :) Thank you again.

  • Grace Boyle

    Susan, never apologize for your wonderful comments :) They are so inquisitive and interesting.

    Again, I would encourage you to write your own blog post, piggy backing off your ideas here and what I’ve written :) Thank you again.

  • David

    Prepare yourself Gracie. Long comment to follow. I’m trying to compete with Susan’s. I kid, I kid…

    While digital communication was invented to save time, it doesn’t necessarily simplify the communication process. And like you said, emoticons can only help so much. Body language makes up 93% of communication! That means only 7% of communication is actual words! So it’s no surprise why our words are often lost in translation, regardless if they are written or spoken. You’re far better off brushing up on your Body Language Reading skills.

    Everyone knows women are better communicators than men. And while I can’t speak for all men, I know I do a much better job writing how I feel rather than verbalizing it. When I’m forced to “talk” about my feelings, I get all uncomfortable and my palms get sweaty. My mind starts to race and I trip over my tongue. But if I can get it down on paper, I’m ok. I’m able to take a minute to collect my thoughts and spit out the words without feeling trapped in a pressure cooker with a lid too small to contain the hot mess, AKA me.

    Regardless, using a pen as a crutch or an electronic screen as shield is frowned upon. You must allow yourself to be vulnerable infront of naked eyes. To trust enough in yourself that the right words will find their way pass your lips. And trust in others that those words will be listened to with kindness and an overwhelming urge to understand. Of course that’s much easier said (or written) than done. 😉

    PS (If you haven’t read it, you’ll probably like a post of mine from 2009 titled “Love In The Digital Age.” It touches upon many of the same things you talked about here.

  • Grace Boyle

    Ameena, thanks for sharing your story. I think it’s really hard for people to confront others and because there are so many outlets, where we can be passive, there are used (unfortunately). I think it takes maturity to be upfront.

    Hopefully, we can continue to grow and educate – talk in person when necessary and then leverage the great online tools for effective communication at a distance.

  • Grace Boyle

    You’re very right, Erin!

    However, even with moderation, I find that texts or emails can be lost in translation. I love texting and emailing, I still say email is the best way to reach me now, but I know because of the human emotion lacking, sometimes its read wrong.

    I suppose there isn’t a solution. However, taking it with a grain of salt can help and actually being upfront if you’re confused about communication might be good too. Thanks for the kind words :)

  • Grace Boyle

    Alyx, thank you! Glad to hear you like.

    It’s hard because sometimes we don’t have access to people in person (they live elsewhere, etc.) I suppose knowing that sometimes electronic communication may not be read right helps. It’s definitely an interesting thought though…Thanks for popping by!

  • Grace Boyle

    Thanks, Laurie. Clearly, these types of “lost in translation” situations have happened to me a lot throughout the years.

    I suppose the most important lesson for me was to not try and read into a text message. If I need clarification, I will just ask. I appreciate technology and obviously work in it, I just think we need to remember there is a time and place just like you said. Thanks for your kind words :)

  • Grace Boyle

    David, I love long comments. Sharing is caring :)

    I remember in college taking a course on small group communication and we researched all types of communication and that number of body language being 93% of communication stuck with me. It’s so true. I read people all the time, even strangers and feel like I can gauge a lot by non-verbal cues.

    I also read your post Love in the Digital Age before :) and just had a friend guest post recently on that very topic as he is navigating the online dating world: I also re-read your post in my “research” for this topic!

  • Chelsea Talks Smack

    This. is. absolutely fantastic. There aren’t even enough words, i’m just nodding my head- you know how i am with the internet and technology, I have an intense “love/hate” relationship; unplugging, connecting online, holding, touching, feeling, seeing the wrinkles in someones smile, their furrowed brows…all of that is the “real shit,” I’ve written about it before and this is a great reminder. Awesome.

  • Grace Boyle

    After a lot of conversations going awry or misread via online, I finally had to spout this out. I knew many could relate, it is how we operate, communicate OR lack therof 😉

    Thanks for the supporting words, my love xo

  • Erin Block

    In honor of his birthday today, I found this quote relevant: “”They say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!”
    — Dr. Seuss

  • Amber Goodenough

    OMG so so so true! I hate not being able to see peoples faces, grrr. It makes me particularly uncomfortable in a business setting where I am expected to interact and form a relationship with a client that I have never met in person.

    Even the phone doesn’t really do it for me. But I am trying to adjust the way I interact with people because I have to. All that said, I do love texting and blogging etc. I am a walking conundrum. Yikes!
    Thanks for the great post!

  • Grace Boyle

    Great quote. I love Dr. Suess!

  • Grace Boyle

    Amber, I feel you:) Sometimes, phone will have to suffice because if you’re like me, you don’t live near family and many friends have moved all over the country.

    It’s good to be aware and to understand how we communicate as effectively as we can. We can only do our best :) Thanks for popping by!

  • Im_anewsoul

    It’s funny how now a days people no longer ask for your number, but they ask what’s your facebook page? And if you’re like me and don’t have one then people just awkwardly say “oh” and then proceed to ask why, as if it was the greatest crime against mankind. Technology does have it’s perks but it also has it’s downfalls, being in an LDR (long distance relationship) it does help sometimes but nothing beats actually seeing a person, face to face and to hold them to you. That’s the one thing that technology does not have, the value of touch.

  • Grace Boyle

    You’re very right re: the value of touch.

    Thanks for weighing in. I think many of us feel similarly.

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  • gem

    I broke up with a boyfriend through text message once. It was entirely because I didn’t want to see his face when I did it. I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to protest my decision either. He still did protest it, but I was able to be a lot nicer through text that I ever could have been in person. Because in person, he would have read my face and heard my tone and he would have felt really, really bad. Worse than he did with the text message. Because I’m not a nice person and he was sensitive and there’s no nice way to break up with someone. And in that situation, in all honesty, technology made our breakup a lot less painful. (I actually know this for a fact because we got back together after a few months, and when I broke up with him the second time, it was in person and it sucked. A lot. Like supremely painful, for both of us and way more drawn out and just… blarg.)

  • Grace Boyle

    Yeah, it’s hard. We all know why things are said via email, text, etc and NOT in person. Doesn’t make it right though.

    I would hope, that we can be strong enough face to face because it’s what the other person deserves. But easier said than done. Remember when Carrie was broken up over a post-it on Sex and the City?? :)