Woman on Internet


Adele Cox, MA
March 2008

Americans like life to be easy, fast, and comfortable. Technology has reduced or eliminated the labor required to meet most of our needs. Need to eat? Don’t harvest or mill – microwave a frozen dinner. Need to travel? Don’t walk – sit and be transported. Need to feel part of a community? Don’t volunteer, visit your neighbor, or join a bowling league – logon to a social networking website.

The recent boom in high-tech communications has enabled us to instantly connect with almost anyone, from friends across town to colleagues across the country to strangers around the globe. One of the latest trends, internet social networking, has given us an overwhelming number of choices and opportunities for easy, immediate, and convenient access to millions of other people.

But are we making the best use of this technology to actually feel closer to one another? Are the hundreds of contacts in our MySpace or Facebook profiles helping us create strong, enduring friendships? Do we really know the people behind the profiles, and do they know the “real” us?

Moving the Meeting Place into Cyberspace

Before the high-tech communications boom, we often met and talked to each other face-to-face in small clusters: around the water cooler, in bowling leagues, or at the backyard fence. We developed interpersonal skills and became friends while sharing our thoughts and allowing others into our hearts and daily lives.

Today, the internet provides nearly unlimited opportunity to connect with other people without ever meeting face to face. However, most experts agree that strictly online relationships, without the benefits and challenges of voice or in-person interaction, face several unique roadblocks to becoming strong and mutually satisfying friendships.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?”

One often cited issue with text-only communication such as email is the significant potential for miscommunication. Lack of verbal and non-verbal feedback, the use of short-cut phraseology, and what psychologists call “egocentrism” (the difficulty in hearing what we’re saying from a perspective other than our own), all contribute to fertilize an environment ripe for misinterpretation.

In their studies of email miscommunication published in 2005 as “Egocentrism Over Email”, Drs. Nicholas Epley and Justin Kruger repeatedly found that both senders and recipients were about 80-90% confident they could correctly transmit and perceive emotional tones such as anger, sadness, and humor over email. But in every case, the recipients were only about 50-60% correct in their perception of the intended emotion.

In moving from “Friendster” to friend, therefore, we may need to take extra steps to ensure that our intended messages are clearly and accurately received. Internet etiquette experts often recommend reading an emotion-laden email out loud before sending it. Furthermore, Epley and Kruger’s study suggests that hearing the text in a different tone can help us notice ideas or phrases that are “obvious” to us but might be misunderstood by someone else. Ask yourself how this joke or message might be interpreted by someone who doesn’t already know what you mean. Taking the few moments to hear your message from another point of view not only shows your desire for clarity, but also demonstrates your awareness and appreciation of your friend’s experience in trying to hear what you have to say.

Although we can’t avoid all online misunderstandings, a follow-up note asking what your friend thought about your message gives you insight to both your clarity and the quality of your overall communications. What did he think about that political satire you sent? Did she feel heard and understood after reading your last reply? Is he interested in hearing your feedback about an email he recently sent? Taking the risk to share your experiences shows your desire to learn more about the “real” person behind the text.

It’s equally important to be open to the answers. If your friend doesn’t share your opinions, don’t judge it as a character flaw, a threat to your friendship, or a rejection of you. Instead, recognize that he or she is taking the risk to share a personal truth; listening with an open mind shows your willingness to understand and accept who they are – a fundamental component of a good friendship.

Too Much Information?

The ability to instantly and anonymously link to hundreds of “friends” online can encourage uninhibited self-disclosure, and can simultaneously undermine self-responsibility and maintaining healthy personal boundaries.

But since sharing personal information is a cornerstone of building trust and intimacy in human relationships, how do we safely integrate the guidelines for deepening friendships into the unbounded universe of internet-based socialization?

Talking with each other about your online friendship not only helps clear misunderstandings, it helps maintain healthy boundaries without exposing sensitive information. What do you each want from the relationship? How often do you expect to chat? What topics are too personal to discuss online? How will you deal with (the inevitable) miscommunications?

Similarly, asking questions of yourself helps you keep a realistic view of the relationship. How do you feel before and after your online meetings? Do your email exchanges feel like empathic conversations or egocentric soliloquies? If meeting in person were possible, would you prefer to remain in cyberspace? Your honest self-assessment is your best gauge to compare your assumptions and expectations to the actual quality of your online friendship.

Trouble in Cyberspace

The “easy-out” seduction of online relationships is never more apparent than when conflicts arise. Say you don’t share your friend’s political views, or his emails suddenly stop coming, or you forward a chain-mail that she finds distasteful. In cyberspace, users faced with conflict can easily avoid the effort and discomfort of dealing with it by simply logging off.

But conflict is a necessary and natural part of human relations. “Knowing how to work with the tensions inherent in any relationship is critical to that relationship’s success”, says Marian Woodard, co-creator of “Courageous Communication”, an interactive workshop which teaches how to use conflict to strengthen business and personal relationships. “Listen openly, take your time, acknowledge the discomfort, and be clear why it’s important to work through this conflict”, advises Woodard.

If you and your friend haven’t yet discussed how you want to handle conflicts, raising the general subject might be easier than breaching the specific (and presumably charged) issue. Asking “How do you handle conflict in your offline world?” opens a channel of communication for you both to learn your respective feelings about dealing with difficult situations, and may open a path for you to begin a discussion of the uncomfortable topic.

Often, the most important first step in conflict resolution is acknowledging that a misunderstanding or disagreement even exists. Acknowledgement is neither acquiescence nor “flaming” (the online version of egocentric yelling). Rather, it is a process of truthfully revealing to your friend that something happened that had an effect on you. “This is hard for me to say. I know that chain mail you sent was supposed to be funny, but I really found it disturbing. Can I share how it impacted me?”

Successful conflict resolution depends on your mutual commitment to enhancing the relationship rather than proving one another right and wrong. When your friend says she found the chain mail distasteful, a reflexive reaction may be to feel defensive or insulted, as if her experience of the chain mail is a personal attack on you. But a moment of self-reflection can clarify your experience and calm the instinct to “flame”.

Perhaps you feel embarrassed at your misjudgment. Perhaps you are erroneously generalizing her opinion of the email as dislike of you. On the other hand, if this were intended as a personal attack, is it possibly masking unexpressed anger or resentment that is already present in the relationship?

Epley and others advise that face-to-face or telephone conversations are better suited for discussing emotional context than email or other text messaging. But if in-person or telephone interactions are not feasible, it’s imperative that you and your online friend find compatible methods for working through conflict. Moving together through disagreements and discord builds mutual trust, respect, and intimacy – relationship aspects that are easily avoided in cyberspace but are crucial to successful friendships.

“You Get What You Give”

Technology serves us best when we use it consciously, wisely, and responsibly. Social networking has made it easy to circumvent much of the effort involved in making new friends and maintaining relationships. But we can develop emotional and spiritual connection in the virtual world if we apply the interpersonal skills we use in the “real” world. If our goal is to feel more connected with other humans, technology cannot be our only tool – we must also communicate from the heart.


Brashears, Matthew E., McPherson, Miller, Smith-Lovin, Lynn. 2006. “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review (Volume 71, June: 353-375).

Epley, Nicholas, Kruger, Justin, Ng, Zhi-Wen, Parker, Jason. 2005. “Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Volume 89, Number 6, December: 925-936).

Mitchard, Jacquelyn. 2007. “The Best Friend You Never Met.” Parade Magazine (November 18: 8-11).

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Sleek, Scott. 1998. “Isolation Increases with Internet Use.” The APA Monitor Online (Volume 29, Number 9, September).

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Woodard, Marian. 2006. “Courageous Communication: Conflict Resolution for the Conflict-Adverse”. Personal workshop notes, course handouts, and student discussions.