When you talk to someone face-to-face, your unconscious mind automatically absorbs the emotional state of the person in front of you.  Especially if you know the person well, you know whether she is being serious when she says, “Your hair is on fire,” or just kidding.  That knowledge enables you to decide how to hear and understand the communication you’re receiving.  It’s based on the emotion-tagged memories you have of your previous interaction with that person, and a whole host of other interactions and memories.

Most of us simply don’t appreciate that our decision-making, our negotiations of the world around us and with other human beings, and our analysis of the familiar and the strange things that we encounter every day – are all made possible and efficient by two processes our unconscious minds do very, very well:  recognize patterns, and attach meaning to them through emotion.  Imagine the young child putting the proverbial finger on the hot stove.  Instantly, his unconscious mind is seething with shock, anger, pain, surprise, bafflement, fury.  He’s never going to do that again.  Pattern recognition, and emotional memory tagging will ensure that he never even comes close.

That’s how our minds work.  Take away the emotion, and we can’t get purchase on that mountain of messaging.

You send and receive messages in email and suddenly you and your recipients lack those immediate cues, and your emotional memory-decision systems aren’t triggered.  You either find the messages simply boring, or you may make a wrong evaluation of their meaning.  Either way, you’re wrong.

Add to that a huge increase in the number of messages coming at you, because email is so easy to send, and suddenly your whole decision-making process is registering overload.  You can’t keep up, you can’t decide the relative importance of all the stuff coming at you, so triage is hard to do, and most of it is deeply uninteresting anyway.  When you do react strongly to something, it may as likely be a misreading as a correct one.

And so, in sum, email (and texting, and Slack, and all the other forms of text-based communication) is frictionless and asynchronous.  But it’s also boring, overwhelming, and difficult to deal with.

That’s the real state of the digital era.

In contrast, face-to-face communications, the kind we evolved to handle very, very well, are fast, data-rich, and mostly unconscious.

The digital era is a communications disaster.  Email is hard work.  Texting isn’t much better, though emojis and emoticons do help.  We should all use them – they cut down on emotional miscues.

We should get training, licensing, and expert help for communicating in the virtual world.  Instead, we just all try to figure it out in our own ways.  And do you know what we’ve learned about email, collectively, in the half-century or so it has been around?


That’s not much learning.  We should know more by now.  We don’t, and that’s part of the communications disaster.

This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, due out from Harvard in October.  You can pre-order it here.  And thanks!


    1. Thanks so much, Glenn. I’m (with difficulty) resisting the temptation to reply with an all caps “Thank you!”

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