WORDS: WILLA NIELSEN '17
IMAGES: FRIENDS & FACEBOOK
I woke up angry, exhausted and hungover. After a night involving a fight, tears, and a punch, I rolled over for my phone only to realize I’d fallen asleep clutching it. The last few texts were a combination of accusing, crying, and yelling. 80% were in all caps.
Classic story: A friend of a friend. We’d spent most of the night hanging out. Clock strikes 12. Dude turns into manipulative misogynist. A long and all too public argument. I walked home and spent the next two hours texting.
Now, 8 hours later, I felt I was owed an apology. I was owed an apology. An hour later it came in the form of a Facebook message.
Sitting up and re-reading the message, I imagined the confrontation that should’ve happened. I imagined myself walking up to him, yelling at him, and looking into his eyes as I said, “you’re such an asshole!” But now I stared at a message that crammed ‘I’m sorry’ into a few grammatically perfect sentences. And it stared back at me: An entire fight reduced to a handful of words with a read receipt that clocked me in. I was caught off guard and I was pissed. Because it didn’t feel like an apology. I felt cheated.
65% of communication is non-verbal. The shakiness, the rolling eyes, the increased volume, the sighs, all moments that happen during a fight. I didn’t get to experience any of it. I only got to read it. As Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, explains, when you fight online, “you don’t understand their context, their feelings, their emotions, all you have to go on is reflected in your screen.” Behind my screen, I started to make stuff up. I overanalyzed each word and read into every possible meaning while simmering at my laptop. After starting three different drafts, I decided to give up and write a response later. This isn’t how conversation is supposed to work.
It’s become obvious to us now that we say things online we would never say to someone’s face. We press send without having to see their reaction. Didn’t we all learn that’s how online bullies work? But more than that, we have the option to close the page and walk away. If you were fighting with a friend (IRL), you wouldn’t stop mid-thought and leave. Then come back later with a fully formulated argument and a snappy insult. Or a heartfelt apology. Then walk away again. My point is this: Having intimate online conversations or fights is bad for us. And probably does some serious damage to our friendships. Not to mention our sanity.
Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, sheds some light on the difference between online and irl. “Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology.” She adds, “FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices… we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.” We’re not just cleaning up and simplifying, we’re dumbing down. We’re ignoring the raw emotional responses in favor of wrapping up an idea and sending it off.
Online fights end friendships quicker and easier than real life arguments. 15% of adults and 22% of teens say online experiences have ended real life friendships. Are we really surprised by that? We seem to forget that what happens online translates to real life. The difference here is that the fights we have online are structured to minimize complexity. We might think we’re hashing things out, but we’re really only scratching at the surface. And that surface taunts you with read receipts and your/you’re typos.
Let’s look at my online apology.
So my question is this: can you get closure from an online fight? Since that day I’ve thought about the fight and the apology a lot. More than I should, really. I wonder why the entire event feels like it’s been left open, ready to be picked up at any moment. It comes down to this: the culmination of my emotional experience of the fight deserves more than a few lines on a screen.
I’m also deeply underwhelmed by his apology. As unfair as it may seem, part of me feels that it wasn’t completely genuine, simply because of its delivery. I needed to see it to believe it. On a slightly adjacent and even more neurotic note, I can’t help but imagine him sitting at his computer with a friend helping him write. “Yeah, say that you’re sorry but also that you’re disappointed in yourself. That’s good.”
I don’t completely knock social media. Connecting people is what it was made for, right? Maybe being able to write and re-write your message helps you to articulate your feelings more clearly. Maybe taking some time away from the computer keeps you from reacting too carelessly. Maybe it gives you time to cool down. These are rational and calm ways of dealing with a situation.
But fighting isn’t rational and it isn’t calm. It’s fighting. It’s yelling and getting upset. It’s showing some messy emotions and working through an issue together. It’s seeing the other person and understanding how they feel. It’s non-verbal. It’s hard and exhausting. And then you come out of it alive.
And finally the truth: Fighting sucks no matter what. But at least when it’s face-to-face, you get the satisfaction of seeing your words make an impact. Plus, a lot of older people think we’ve lost the ability to have real conversations and it’s kind of terrifying to think they might be on to something. My only hope is that next time I find myself fighting with I friend I have the courage and willpower to write back “Hey, can we meet up to talk instead?”